July 9, 2020

Supreme Court Protects Conscience Rights in Little Sisters of the Poor v. Pennsylvania, But the Fight isn't Over

On Wednesday, the Supreme Court ruled in favor of the Little Sisters of the Poor in a 7-2 decision protecting their conscience rights from government mandates, but sadly their long battle in court is not yet over.

The full opinions of the Supreme Court Justices can be read here.

The Little Sisters of the Poor is a Catholic charity run by nuns who work to serve the elderly and the poor. For several years, however, they have been stuck in a legal battle against government powers attempting to force them to accept the Obama administration's "contraception mandate" under the Affordable Care Act. The mandate requires employers to provide coverage for contraceptives, sterilizations, and “emergency birth control” in employee health plans.

“We are overjoyed that, once again, the Supreme Court has protected our right to serve the elderly without violating our faith,” said Mother Loraine Marie Maguire of the Little Sisters in a statement. “Our life’s work and great joy is serving the elderly poor and we are so grateful that the contraceptive mandate will no longer steal our attention from our calling.”

The Supreme Court decision supports employers' right to seek an exemption from the contraception mandate and also lifts a nationwide injunction on the Trump administration's conscience protection rule that would help employers do so.

"We hold today that the Departments had the statutory authority to craft that exemption, as well as the contemporaneously issued moral exemption," Justice Thomas wrote in the majority opinion. "We further hold that the rules promulgating these exemptions are free from procedural defects. Therefore, we reverse the judgment of the Court of Appeals and remand the cases for further proceedings consistent with this opinion."

The case is being sent back to the lower courts, where they will decide whether the Trump administration rule offering religious and moral exemptions to employers is "arbitrary and capricious." 

Justice Alito was troubled by this part of the Supreme Court's decision. In his concurring opinion (joined by Justice Gorsuch) Justice Alito wrote, 

"This will prolong the legal battle in which the Little Sisters have now been engaged for seven years—even though during all this time no employee of the Little Sisters has come forward with an objection to the Little Sisters’ conduct. I understand the Court’s desire to decide no more than is strictly necessary, but under the circumstances here, I would decide one additional question: whether the Court of Appeals erred in holding that the Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA) does not compel the religious exemption granted by the current rule. If RFRA requires this exemption, the Departments did not act in an arbitrary and capricious manner in granting it.

Alito later added, "And in my judgment, RFRA compels an exemption for the Little Sisters and any other employer with a similar objection…"

Justice Ginsburg (joined by Justice Sotomayor) argued against the ruling in her dissenting opinion:

"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."

Wednesday's decision protects the rights of employers from being trampled on by employees and by the government, and it does not take the supposed right to abortion away from employees. Even if access to abortion is considered a right, that right does not require employers to pay for their employees' abortions. Employers' rights were challenged by the contraception mandate, and the Supreme Court decision reflects this.

“One of our most fundamental rights is the right to the free exercise of our beliefs and that these beliefs are not trampled by government overreach,” said Carol Tobias, president of National Right to Life. “We are pleased that the U.S. Supreme Court recognized the importance of protecting conscience rights.”

It would be unsurprising if the Little Sisters of the Poor once again found themselves in front of the Supreme Court arguing this same case in the future. Courts across the nation need to recognize the right of employers to object to the morally awful practice of abortion.