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SCOTUS Strengthens Religious Exemptions From Workplace Discrimination Law and ACA Birth Control Mandate
Jul 10, 2020

SCOTUS Strengthens Religious Exemptions From Workplace Discrimination Law and ACA Birth Control Mandate

Topics: Court Decisions, Discrimination, Harassment & Retaliation

The United States Supreme Court issued two decisions this week in cases involving religion and the workplace.  In one case, the Court held that religious organizations may not be sued for discrimination by their teachers.  In the other case, the Court upheld a regulation allowing private employers with religious or moral objections to opt-out of providing birth control coverage at no cost to employees.

Religious “Ministerial” Exception to Workplace Discrimination Law

Back in 2012, the United States Supreme Court held that the First Amendment’s free exercise of religion clause provides a “ministerial exception” that protects religious entity employers from claims of discrimination by its “ministers.”  In that case, Hosanna-Tabor Evangelical Lutheran Church and School v. EEOC, the Court held that the ministerial exception barred an ADA retaliation claim by a religious school teacher against the church for whom she worked.  The Court explained that the First Amendment’s free exercise clause provides religious organizations with a constitutional right to select their ministers who will convey and teach their missions.  Requiring a church to employ an unwanted minister (through an employment discrimination lawsuit) interferes with the church’s free exercise of religion.  The issue in the case then became whether the plaintiff-employee qualified as a “minister.”  The Court said yes, noting that the employee had a ministerial title, held herself out as a minister, taught religion to students four days per week, and led the students in prayer three times per week.  Because the teacher qualified as a minister, she could not, as a matter of law, sue the church for retaliatory termination under the ADA.

This week, the Court issued its decision in two cases (consolidated for purposes of review) that again involve the ministerial exception.  The specific issue before the Court was whether elementary school teachers at Roman Catholic schools qualified as “ministers” who could not sue their employers for employment discrimination.  The district court in each case held that the ministerial exception applied and barred the teachers’ employment discrimination claims.  However, the Ninth Circuit reversed, holding that the teachers did not qualify as “ministers” under Hosanna-Tabor.   As is usually the case with Ninth Circuit decisions, the Supreme Court reversed.  In doing so, the Court held that Hosanna-Tabor was not meant to, and did not, set forth a rigid or narrow test for determining which employees qualify as “ministers.”  The employees at issue were both teachers at Catholic schools.  They taught numerous academic subjects to elementary-school-aged students, one of the subjects being religion.  They led the students in prayer in the classroom as well.  The teachers’ employment agreements required that they model and perform Catholic faith and morals and infuse their secular teaching with the Catholic faith.  Given these duties, the Court held that they qualified as ministers, regardless of the fact that they did not have a “minister” title.  The Court reasoned, “What matters, at bottom, is what an employee does.”  In that regard, “educating young people in their faith, inculcating its teachings, and training them to live their faith are responsibilities that lie at the very core of the mission of a private religious school.”  As such, the ministerial exception immunized the Catholic school employers from employment discrimination claims by these two teachers. 

It is important to recognize that application of the ministerial exception means that the merits of a discrimination claim do not get reached.  The religious entity simply cannot be sued for employment discrimination and they cannot be held liable regardless of whether they, in fact, discriminate against an employee because of a characteristic protected by employment discrimination law.

The Supreme Court’s decision, Our Lady of Guadalupe School v. Morrissey-Berru, is available here.

Right of Employers to Opt-Out of Providing Birth Control Coverage to Employees

This week, the high Court also issued its decision in a case challenging a regulation that allows private employers with religious or moral objections to opt-out of providing birth control coverage to employees as part of their health insurance.  Two states sued over the regulation, alleging it was invalid and in violation of the Affordable Care Act (“ACA”).  However, the Supreme Court upheld the regulation as properly authorized and adopted.  The Court explained that ACA does not expressly require employer health plans to provide for birth control at no cost to employees.  Instead, ACA simply requires health plans to provide for “additional preventive care and screenings” for women.  ACA authorizes the Health Resources and Services Administration (“HRSA”) to issue guidelines determining what “preventive care and screenings” are required to be covered.  Thus, HRSA has discretion to determine coverage and exemptions from coverage.  In this regard, HRSA issued a guideline several years ago requiring health plans to provide FDA-approved birth control at no charge.  However, there are also exemptions from this requirement, the one at issue being an exemption for private employers with religious or moral objections to providing birth control.  Upholding the regulation, the Court reasoned that ACA gives HRSA “virtually unbridled discretion to decide what counts as preventive care and screenings,” and that discretion is “equally unchecked in other areas, including the ability to identify and create exemptions from its own Guidelines.”

The case is Little Sisters of the Poor v. Pennsylvania and the decision is here.

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Robin Largent has a regular presence in California state and federal courts and has been lead defense counsel and appellate counsel for large and small California employers in litigation (and arbitration) ranging from individual discrimination and harassment claims to complex wage and hour representative and class actions. She also leads the firm’s appellate practice, having substantial experience and success handling appeals, writ petitions, and amicus briefs in both state and federal court on issues such as class certification (particularly in the wage and hour arena), manageability and due process concerns associated with class action trials, exempt/non-exempt misclassification issues, meal and rest break compliance, trade secret/unfair competition matters, and the scope of federal court jurisdiction under the Class Action Fairness Act.
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