Two wins for religious freedom at US Supreme Court

Does a religious school have the right to employ only staff who will uphold the school’s ethos? Should a religious employer be forced to pay for contraception and the ‘morning-after pill’? In two separate rulings last week considering these matters, the US Supreme Court has ruled in favour of religious freedom.

The first case concerned two employees who were dismissed from Catholic elementary (primary) schools. One claimed to have been let go because she had a disability and the other because of her age. The two schools said it was because they were not sufficiently good at their jobs.

The Supreme Court ruled that the right of religious schools to hire and fire teachers came under a doctrine called the “ministerial exception”. This allows religious organisations to freely decide matters concerning their ministers without interference from the State, including anti-discrimination laws.

The question for the Supreme Court was to determine whether this exception also applied to lay staff. It ruled that it did. In Catholic elementary schools, teachers also teach religion and lead school prayer.

In a 7-2 decision the judges said that schools are “communities of mutual witness” and ultimately, it is the Church rather than the State that has the last word on who can teach.

The second ruling addressed more a procedural than a substantive point, but it is still a significant victory for religious freedom.

The Affordable Care Act, also known as ‘Obamacare’, had an exemption for certain religious institutions that did not want to offer their employees insurance coverage for what they consider against their religious ethos. For instance, churches are not obliged to offer an insurance plan that includes contraception or the morning-after-pill, which may cause abortion.

The Trump Administration expanded this exemption, including not only religious but also moral reasons.  The States of Pennsylvania and New Jersey challenged the administration’s ability to overturn the Obamacare mandate in this regard and, consequently, the Supreme Court was asked if the Trump Administration followed the right procedures for permitting this new exemption.

The Supreme Court (by 7-2), upheld the exemption.

This is also a big victory for freedom of conscience and of religion.