Jul 11, 2020 - Politics & Policy

Supreme Court expands religious freedoms in schools, employment

Illustration of a stained glass window featuring a hand with a gavel

Illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios

The Supreme Court ended its term with a series of rulings on religion's role in schools, the workplace and access to health care.

Why it matters: The decisions elevated protections for people and employers of faith, while curtailing those of religion teachers, the nonreligious taxpayer and women who rely on their workplaces' health care plans for contraception.

  • Yet even liberal Justices Stephen Breyer and Elena Kagan voted with conservatives on issues of contraception and employment — signaling a growing consensus on the role of faith in American policymaking.

The state of play... Three cases bolstered the expression of religion and religious institutions in America:

  • A 5-4 decision in June ruled that private religious schools cannot be excluded from tax-funded voucher programs.
  • A 7-2 ruling on Wednesday determined that federal employment discrimination laws do not apply to private school teachers tasked with religious instruction.
  • A 7-2 ruling also on Wednesday upheld the right of employers with a religious or moral objection to deny contraceptive coverage as part of their workers’ health care plans.

Critics contend the decisions overly favor religion.

  • Justice Ruth Bader-Ginsberg wrote the dissent on the decision allowing employers to deny contraception coverage: "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."
  • Justice Sonia Sotomayor wrote in dissent on the employment case that the ruling could extend beyond teachers to camp counselors, nurses, social-service workers, in-house lawyers and others.
  • "All these employees could be subject to discrimination for reasons completely irrelevant to their employers’ religious tenets," Sotomayor noted.

Our thought bubble: The expansion of religious freedoms is a solid and consistent trend for the court under Chief Justice John Roberts' leadership. Free-exercise claims almost always win, with conservatives consistently backing the cause, Axios' Sam Baker notes.

Between the lines: The Trump administration has made the appointment of conservative judges a priority, including Justices Brett Kavanaugh and Neil Gorsuch.

What they're saying: White House Press Secretary Kayleigh McEnany said in a statement on Wednesday, "[T]he Trump Administration has sought to lift burdens on religious exercise for people of all faiths."

  • "As the Supreme Court has previously stated, protecting the ability of people to worship and live according to the dictates of their conscience is part of ‘the best of our traditions,'" McEnany wrote.
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