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On July 8, 2020, the United States Supreme Court handed down its decisions in Our Lady of Guadalupe School v. Morrissey-Beru and Little Sisters of the Poor Saints Peter and Paul Home v. Pennsylvania. The first case bars teachers at religious schools from bringing employment discrimination claims against their employers. The second case allows employers with religious or moral objections to covering no-cost contraception for their employees under the Affordable Care Act (ACA) to obtain an exemption. Both hurt employees.
The Court combined two employment discrimination cases in this decision. Agnes Morrissey-Berru and Kristen Bell were elementary school teachers at Catholic schools who taught secular and doctrinal subjects. Ms. Morrissey-Berru brought an Age Discrimination in Employment Act of 1967 (ADEA) claim against her employer, Our Lady of Guadalupe School, while Ms. Biel brought suit against her employer, St. James School, after she was terminated because she requested a leave of absence to undergo breast cancer treatment.
The question before the Court was whether teachers at religious schools fall within the “ministerial exception,” which bars judicial intervention into “certain key employees[’]” employment discrimination claims. (140 S.Ct. at 2055.) The “ministerial exception” comes from religious institutions’ First Amendment right “‘to decide for themselves, free from state interference, matters of church government as well as those of faith and doctrine.’” (Id. [quoting Kedroff v. Saint Nicholas Cathedral of Russian Orthodox Church in North America, 344 U.S. 94, 116, 73 S.Ct. 143, 97 L.Ed. 120 (1952)].)
Justice Alito wrote the majority opinion, which held that, “When a school with a religious mission entrusts a teacher with the responsibility of educating and forming students in the faith, judicial intervention into disputes between the school and the teacher threatens the school’s independence in a way the First Amendment does not allow.” (Id. at 2069.) This means that teachers at parochial schools fall within the “ministerial exception” and have no legal recourse when their employer discriminates against them based on characteristics such as race, gender, age, or disability.
This decision sets a dangerous precedent where hundreds of thousands of employees of religious institutions, not just clergy, will be unable to seek redress for discrimination that would otherwise be actionable in court. As of the 2017-2018 school year, there were nearly 300,000 teachers at over 13,000 religious primary and secondary schools in the United States. In light of this decision, religious schools can completely sidestep anti-discrimination laws and target teachers based on protected characteristics that have nothing to do with the tenets of their faith.
In this case, seven Justices held that employers with religious or moral objections to providing no-cost contraceptive coverage under the ACA are allowed to obtain an exemption. In his plurality opinion, Justice Thomas wrote that “no language in the [ACA] itself even hints that Congress intended that contraception should or must be covered.” (140 S.Ct. at 2382.) According to the Court, because the ACA does not explicitly enumerate contraceptives as a form of “‘preventive care’,” employers can freely deny employees no-cost contraception based on their religious or moral objections. (Id. at 2373.)
This decision poses a serious threat to women’s health. For instance, oral contraceptives can lower the risk of ovarian cysts and “hormonal birth control methods can reduce the incidence of certain cancers in women.” In light of this decision, even women who need contraceptives for health reasons other than preventing pregnancy can be denied covered care because their employer has a religious or moral objection to it. Health benefits aside, this decision permits employers’ religious beliefs to encroach upon employees’ private health care decisions.
Working Americans must ask themselves: Should my employers’ religious beliefs govern what type of health care I can receive? Unfortunately for employees who need contraceptives for a variety of reasons, the Court has answered this question with a resounding yes. If you are concerned about your health or bodily autonomy as a result of the Court’s decision, please contact your representatives and urge them to propose and support bills that specifically require employers to provide no-cost contraceptive coverage in their health plans