US SUPREME COURT - After seven long years of fighting at the Supreme Court, a group of Catholic nuns who objected to being forced to provide contraception in their health care plans won a big ruling today, and so did religious schools.
The two huge wins for religious liberty came on one of the very last days of this term. Both cases were decided by an overwhelming 7 - 2 majority.
The Heritage Foundation's Ryan Anderson points out, "Significant victories for religious liberty today by a margin of 7-to-2. If anything, this should send a signal to the culture that we should all be protecting and valuing and cherishing religious liberty."
The religious rights legal group Becket represented the Little Sisters of the Poor in their fight against the Obamacare contraception mandate that violated their conscience rights by attempting to force them to provide abortion-causing drugs through their healthcare plan.
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Mother Loraine Maguire from Little Sisters of the Poor said, "We knew immediately that we could not comply. To do so would have been an irreconcilable contradiction of the belief that guides our ministry and life's work."
Becket Counsel Adele Keim said, "The Supreme Court has resoundingly declared that religious Americans are entitled to the full protection of the Constitution and our laws."
The high court left no doubt.
Becket President Mark Rienzi said, "The federal government is obligated…is obligated…not to second-guess the Sisters' religious beliefs, not to say 'Oh, Sister, you shouldn't be so worried about this' or 'That's not really a sin.'"
Anderson said, "What was at stake in these cases was whether or not the government could force an individual or an institution, in this case, an order of Roman Catholic sisters, the Little Sisters of the Poor, to engage in behavior that they believe to be immoral, to engage in behavior that they thought would violate the commands they've been given by God."
But some organizations were complaining about the ruling. Sheila Katz of the National Council of Jewish Women stated:
"A person's ability to access birth control should not be dependent on the religious views of their employer or educational institution under the guise of religious freedom."
And Vanita Gupta at the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human RIghts said this in a statement:
"Religious freedom does not create a license to discriminate. The Affordable Care Act guarantees health care coverage, including contraceptive coverage, to employees and students. This troubling decision allows employers and universities to refuse to provide contraceptive coverage based on religious or moral opposition. This type of discrimination will potentially inflict harm on hundreds of thousands of people and disproportionately impact women of color and people in lower-income groups."
The White House also weighed in on the ruling, stating:
"Twice before in this ongoing saga, the Supreme Court has blocked these overly rigid and misguided efforts and sided with religious freedom. Today, it has once again vindicated the conscience rights of people of faith."
Religious Freedom Up for a Vote in 2020
But if the White House changes hands, this fight may erupt again. Legal experts say future administrations will have their own interpretation of how to enforce the Obamacare contraception mandate.
"I absolutely expect these regulations to change and go back to something like the Obama administration rules that will much more limit the ability of religious ministries to get exemptions from the contraceptive mandate," explained Regent University Law School Professor Brad Jacob.
Religious Schools Have Religious Rights
In the second ruling, the court granted religious employers the right to hire and fire employees, without government interference. It also answered whether two former Catholic school teachers can also be considered "ministers" – when the school's primary identity and mission is religious.
Justice Samuel Alito, for the majority, wrote:
"When a school with a religious mission entrusts a teacher with educating students in the faith, judicial intervention into those disputes threatens the school's independence in a way that the first amendment does not allow."
Justice Clarence Thomas called Wednesday's decision "a step in the right decision," adding: "That the issue is "an inherently theological question and...cannot be resolved by civil courts..."
Religious rights advocates agreed, saying it upholds the high court's "ministerial exception" doctrine.
"If you're teaching religion at a religious school, then you fall within this ministerial exception," said Eric Rassbach, Becket senior counsel. "That has to be. That the churches and the synagogues and the mosques have to have control over who teaches their faith."
Rassbach said the Court didn't look at titles, but what teachers at these schools actually did that involved the faith.
Rassbach explained the justices asked about those teachers, “What do they do all day? And if one of the things they’re doing is teaching Catholic school kids what to believe about Catholicism, then the government really needs to stay out of it.”
But opponents believe the ruling opens the door for the "potential for abuse". Justice Sonia Sotomayor writing for herself and Justice Ruth Bader Ginsberg wrote: "That the majority's approach: has no legal basis" and "gives an employer free rein to discriminate traits protected by law ... even when the discrimination is wholly unrelated to the employer's religious beliefs or practices."
"Today's First Amendment decision suggests that religious institutions still have a prayer of preserving and promoting their biblical teachings when it comes to employment decisions," said Family Research Center's Tony Perkins.
The court's majority said this ruling was built on precedent and affirmed the high court's aversion to risk what it called "judicial entanglement" when it comes to religious issues.
New 'Secular Sexual Orthodoxy' Will Still Undermine Religious Freedom
Dr. Russell Moore from the Southern Baptist Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission said this newly expanded ministerial exception sets a precedent for the lower courts. "We really do have a coherent philosophy here that's articulated, that's rooted in the First Amendment, in the Constitution, in legislation like the Religious Freedom Restoration Act - so I think the constitutional policy here is very clear," he said.
But questions remain because of an earlier case this session in which the court redefined sex discrimination to include sexual orientation and gender identity.
Emilie Kao with the Heritage Foundation said, "The court just went ahead and redefined sex discrimination and that's going to create a secular sexual orthodoxy that religious institutions and religious individuals will probably have to litigate in the courts for many years to come."