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SCOTUS Decision Allowing Religious Exemptions On Birth Control Is A Big Win For Religious Liberty

The Little Sisters sought legal remedy to help keep them from being forced to pay for something in direct opposition to their religious convictions.


In a major win for religious liberty, the Supreme Court ruled 7-2 on Wednesday that employers with moral or religious objections would be exempt from the federal mandate that requires company health insurance to cover birth control.

The case was a consolidation of The Little Sisters of the Poor v. Pennsylvania and Trump v. Pennsylvania, both of which sought to alter the implementation of the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act of 2010 (ACA). While the bill itself had no requirements for contraceptive access being guaranteed, this became mandatory through interim final rules (IFRs). While Churches have always been exempt from the ruling, other religious or religiously-affiliated organizations were not.

The Little Sisters of the Poor is a Roman Catholic religious order, who focus their ministry on charity; the sisters run homes for elderly people of low-income, and alongside the nuns, each home has an employed staff, to whom they provide health insurance. However, contraception is against the beliefs of the Catholic Church, and, as a religious order, the Little Sisters sought legal remedy to help keep them from being forced to pay for something in direct opposition to their religious convictions.

The Court’s decision overturned the Third Circuit Court’s conclusion that government departments (including Heath and Human Services, Treasury, and Labor) did not have the jurisdiction to allow any exceptions to the regulations forcing companies to provide birth control to their employees.

“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 of the Poor. “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.”

Justice Clarence Thomas wrote the majority opinion, joined by Chief Justice John Roberts and Justices Samuel Alito, Neil Gorsuch, and Brett Kavanaugh. Justice Elena Kagan wrote a concurring opinion, which was joined by Justice Stephen Breyer. Likewise, Justice Alito wrote a concurring opinion, joined by Justice Gorsuch. The dissent was written by Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, joined by Justice Sonia Sotomayor.

Justice Thomas’s opinion takes Burwell v. Hobby Lobby as precedent, arguing that requiring the Little Sisters to fund contraceptives is in direct violation of their religious liberty, as it forces them to be complicit in something directly against their beliefs. Justice Thomas wrote:

After two decisions from this Court and multiple failed regulatory attempts, the Federal Government has arrived at a solution that exempts the Little Sisters from the source of their complicity-based concerns—the administratively imposed contraceptive mandate. We hold today that the Departments had the statutory authority to craft that exemption, as well as the contemporaneously issued moral exemption.

Justice Alito’s concurring opinion broadly agrees with the court’s opinion, but focuses more specifically on the application of the Religious Freedom Restoration Act. He writes, “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), 42 U. S. C. §§2000bb–2000bb–4, does not compel the religious exemption granted by the current rule.

Through his legal examination of RFRA and religious exemptions, the concurring opinion ultimately declares that the administrative bureaucracies were not only allowed to create the exemption, but legally required. He writes, “I would hold not only that it was appropriate for the Departments to consider RFRA, but also that the Departments were required by RFRA to create the religious exemption (or something very close to it). I would bring the Little Sisters’ legal odyssey to an end.”

Justice Kagan’s concurring opinion differs substantively from those of Justices Thomas and Alito. Rather than focusing on the religious exemption, her vote was to protect the department’s jurisdiction to enact exemptions as they see fit. She writes:

I would defer to the Departments’ view of the scope of Congress’s delegation. See supra, at 3. That means the Departments (assuming they act hand-in-hand with HRSA) have wide latitude over exemptions, so long as they satisfy the requirements of reasoned decisionmaking. But that ‘so long as’ is hardly nothing. Even in an area of broad statutory authority—maybe especially there—agencies must rationally account for their judgments.

Justice Ginsburg’s dissent argues that the religious and moral exemptions directly trample other people’s rights, which ought to be prioritized. She writes, “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.”

Justice Ginsburg prioritizes one of many ways for women to access birth control over the sister’s rights to practice their Catholicism and not be forced into violating their firmly-held beliefs.