Supreme Court decision broadens religious exemptions to contraception coverage for employers

The Supreme Court on Wednesday sided with the Trump administration in its effort to allow employers who cite religious or moral objections to opt out of providing no-cost birth control to women as required by the Affordable Care Act.

The high court on Wednesday said 7-2 the administration acted properly when it made the change, which lower courts had blocked.

“We hold today that the Departments had the statutory authority to craft that exemption, as well as the contemporaneously issued moral exemption. We further hold that the rules promulgating these exemptions are free from procedural defects,” Justice Clarence Thomas wrote for a majority of the court.

The government had estimated that the rule changes would cause about 70,000 women, and at most 126,000 women, to lose contraception coverage in one year.

Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg cited those numbers in dissenting.

“In accommodating claims of religious freedom, this Court has taken a balanced approach, one that does not allow the religious beliefs of some to overwhelm the rights and interests of others who do not share those beliefs. Today, for the first time, the Court casts totally aside countervailing rights and interests in its zeal to secure religious rights to the nth degree,” she wrote.

Birth control has been a topic of contention since the law was passed by Barack Obama’s administration.

The mandate requires that employer-provided health insurance include coverage for birth control with no co-pays. Previously, many employer-provided insurance policies did not offer this coverage,

Churches, synagogues and mosques were exempt from the contraceptive coverage requirement, but the Obama administration also created a way religiously affiliated organizations including hospitals, universities and charities could opt out of paying for contraception, but women on their health plans would still get no-cost birth control.

Some groups complained the opt-out process itself violated their religious beliefs.

That opt-out process was the subject of a 2016 Supreme Court case, but the court, with only eight justices at the time because of the death of Justice Antonin Scalia, didn’t decide the issue. It instead sent both sides back to see if they could work out a compromise.

After the Trump administration took over, officials announced a rule change that allows many companies and organization with religious or moral objections to opt out of covering birth control without providing an alternate avenue for coverage.

But the change was blocked by courts after New Jersey and Pennsylvania challenged it.

Court sides for religious school over fired teachers

Separately, the court sided with two Catholic schools in a ruling that underscores that certain employees of religious schools, hospitals and social service centres can’t sue for employment discrimination.

The high court’s ruling was 7-2.

The justices had previously said in a unanimous 2012 decision that the Constitution prevents ministers from suing their churches for employment discrimination.

The court said then that the required separation of church and state means that religious groups must be allowed to hire and fire individuals who serve as teachers or messengers of their faith, without court interference. But the court didn’t rigidly define who counts as a minister.

Justice Samuel Alito wrote in his majority opinion Tuesday that allowing courts to consider workplace discrimination claims against the schools would interfere with the schools’ constitutionally guaranteed religious independence.

“The religious education and formation of students is the very reason for the existence of most private religious schools, and therefore the selection and supervision of the teachers upon whom the schools rely to do this work lie at the core of their mission,” Alito wrote.

In dissent, Justice Sonia Sotomayor warned that as many as 100,000 employees could lose the right to contest job discrimination as a result of the ruling.

“The Court reaches this result even though the teachers taught primarily secular subjects, lacked substantial religious titles and training, and were not even required to be Catholic,” Sotomayor wrote in an opinion that was joined by Ginsburg.

The case involved two schools in Southern California that were sued by former teachers.

In one case, Kristen Biel sued St. James Catholic School in Torrance for disability discrimination after she disclosed she had breast cancer and her teaching contract wasn’t renewed.

In the other case, Agnes Morrissey-Berru sued Our Lady of Guadalupe school in Hermosa Beach for age discrimination after her teaching contract wasn’t renewed when she was in her 60s.

The lawsuits were both initially dismissed, but an appeals court revived them. The Trump administration had backed the schools.

Biel died last year at age 54 after a five-year battle with breast cancer. Her husband represented her side in her place.

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