What do the recent Supreme Court decisions say?

Supreme Court of the United States

The Supreme Court of the United States issued a number of opinions at the end of this year's session that directly impact Catholic entities or have been followed closely by the Church. Our staff summarized the issues and what the decisions mean: 

Little Sisters of the Poor Win on Religious Freedom    

In 2011, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services issued a “contraceptive mandate” requiring the Little Sisters of the Poor to pay for contraceptives in their healthcare plan against their religious and moral objections. After a number of challenges, these women religious made their third appearance at the Supreme Court earlier this year in a case about religious freedom and conscience protections. In a 7-2 decision in Little Sisters of the Poor v. Pennsylvania, the Court upheld the authority of a government agency to promulgate rules exempting employers with religious or moral objections from providing contraceptive coverage. The Little Sisters hope this will bring finality to their right to conscience protections on the issue.

Faith-Based Organizations May Employ Those Who Uphold Their Mission

In two cases consolidated into one for the Supreme Court’s decision, St. James School v. Biel and Our Lady of Guadalupe School v. Morrissey-Berru, the Court upheld and expanded upon constitutional protections for faith-based organizations in employment decisions. In both cases, Catholic schools were sued by teachers for employment decisions made relative to whether the teachers were effectively carrying out the schools’ mission and identity as faith-based institutions. The Court had previously ruled that the “ministerial exception” could apply in instances where a person was in fact considered a “minister.”  In a 7-2 decision, the Court expanded upon that principle, ruling that faith-based schools may hire those who agree to carry out their faith mission and beliefs.

States Cannot Prevent Faith-Based Schools from Educational Choice Programs

Rooted in 19th-century anti-Catholic bigotry, “Blaine Amendments” in state constitutions that prohibited aid to faith-based schools have been used to block state-funded assistance to families and faith-based schools. In Espinoza v. Montana Dept. of Revenue, Ms. Espinoza, a single mother working three jobs, used a state-funded scholarship program to provide her children with the best education for their needs. The program was invalidated under Montana’s Blaine Amendment because it allowed families to choose a faith-based school. In a decision for educational choice and religious freedom, the Court invalidated the Blaine Amendment and ruled that it is unconstitutionally discriminatory for states to prohibit the participation of faith-based schools in state-funded programs simply due to their religious affiliation. Maryland does not have a Blaine Amendment.

Louisiana Abortion Regulations Struck Down

June Medical Services v. Russo dealt with a challenge to a Louisiana law requiring physicians to have admitting privileges at local hospitals in order to perform abortions. The Court held that its 2016 precedent in Whole Woman’s Health v. Hellerstedt applied. There, an almost identical Texas law was struck down as an unconstitutional impediment to abortion. Though Chief Justice Roberts disagreed with the 2016 decision, he indicated that he was bound by the principles of legal precedent in concurring in the 5-4 decision. 

DREAMERS Handed Victory in DACA Case

Since 2012, the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) Program has postponed the deportation of those brought into the United States as children. The program was created largely to ensure that students (a/k/a “DREAMERS”) who were by and large raised in the United States could continue their education and not be subject to deportation. In Department of Homeland Security v. Regents of the University of California, the Court considered whether it was lawful for the current administration to phase out the DACA Program. The Court ultimately decided that the current administration did not have the authority to phase out the program in the manner that it did, and the program was thus upheld. 

Clean Water Act Victory for Environmental Conservation

An environmental case of interest here in Maryland also was decided. In County of Maui v. Hawaii Wildlife Fund, the Court considered the just how far the Clean Water Act was intended to go toward protecting oceans and other navigable waters from harmful waste discharge. In a 6-3 decision, the court upheld a significant expansion of the instances where a permit is required for pollutant discharge into those waters, thus further protecting against harmful pollutants finding their way into our waterways.