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Supreme Court protects religious freedom from Obamacare contraceptive mandate

In another win for the Trump administration and religious liberty advocates, the Supreme Court today ruled 7-2 that the First Amendment’s Establishment Clause exempts religious organizations from employment discrimination lawsuits. It also exempted them from a requirement in Obamacare to provide contraceptives to their employees.

The Little Sisters of the Poor case arose when the New Jersey and Pennsylvania state governments sued the Trump administration for exempting the Little Sisters and other religious organizations from the contraception mandate. The states had attempted to force the religious organization, made up almost entirely of elderly nuns, to pay higher rates to include birth control.

The high court issued 7-2 decisions in two separate sets of cases, Our Lady of Guadalupe School v. Morrissey-Berru and St. James School v. Biel, which were consolidated and heard together May 11 concerning employment discrimination, and Little Sisters of the Poor v. Pennsylvania and Trump v. Pennsylvania, which were also consolidated and heard together May 6 concerning contraception.

Justices Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Sonia Sotomayor dissented from the majority opinions in both cases.

Two Roman Catholic schools in Los Angeles argued that the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals ignored binding caselaw by allowing teachers to move forward employment discrimination lawsuits. While one of the teachers claimed age discrimination, the other, who has since died and is now represented by her husband, alleged she was fired after informing the school she had breast cancer.

The other set of cases dealt with the Affordable Care Act, also known as Obamacare, under which employers have to make cost-free contraceptives available to employees. Churches were exempted.

Little Sisters of the Poor Sister Constance Veit stated earlier this year that following the ACA mandate was “unthinkable.”

“We dedicate our lives to this because we believe in the dignity of every human life at every stage of life from conception until natural death,” Veit said. “So, we’ve devoted our lives — by religious vows — to caring for the elderly. And, we literally are by their bedside holding their hand as they pass on to eternal life. So, it’s unthinkable for us, on the one way, to be holding the hand of the dying elderly, and on the other hand, to possibly be facilitating the taking of innocent unborn life.”

The 2011 Obama-era contraception mandate has spurred more than 100 lawsuits from private individuals, religious groups, state governments, and businesses that objected to it on religious grounds. In October 2017, the Trump administration issued a regulation exempting religious groups from complying with the Obamacare mandate.

Justice Clarence Thomas in his majority opinion noted how throughout the past seven years of litigation, the religious order has “have had to fight for the ability to continue in their noble work without violating their sincerely held religious beliefs.”

Thomas also pointed to past cases involving the Affordable Care Act’s contraception mandate, writing that litigation disputing its scope has existed nearly as long as the mandate itself. he drew heavily on the landmark religious freedom case Burwell v. Hobby Lobby Stores Inc. in which the court decided, on the basis of the Religious Freedom Restoration Act, that closely held corporations were exempted from the mandate if it interfered with the owners’ “sincerely held” beliefs.

Although RFRA was not directly in play in the Little Sisters case, Thomas said that the Trump administration was right to look to the federal law in crafting its exemptions. If it had not, Thomas wrote, it “would certainly be susceptible to claims that the rules were arbitrary and capricious for failing to consider an important aspect of the problem.”

The Trump administration argued it had been wrong to try to compel the religious organizations and others to provide services such as the morning-after pill in their health plans because doing so violated their religious beliefs.

–Dwight Widaman and wire services