On Wednesday, the Supreme Court of the United States issued a decision in the cases of “Our Lady of Guadalupe School v. Morrissey-Berru” and “St. James School v. Biel,” in a ruling with far-reaching consequences for Catholic institutions.
The United States Supreme Court on Wednesday issued a ruling on two cases involving Catholic schools and their right to choose their own teachers without government interference.
The ministerial exemption
The cases turned on the so-called “ministerial exemption,” based on the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, which forbids the government from interfering in employment decisions of religious groups.
In the majority opinion, authored by Justice Samuel Alito, the court ruled that religious education “is vital to many faiths,” and that in the cases before the Court, it was evident that the teachers involved “performed vital religious duties.” The Court overturned earlier decisions by an Appeals court that interpreted the ministerial exemption narrowly, ruling that “judicial intervention into disputes between the school and the teacher threatens the school’s independence in a way that the First Amendment does not allow.”
The ruling drew a dissent from Justice Sonia Sotomayer, who argued that Wednesday’s decision would mean that teachers in religious schools could be fired “for any reason.” She also warned that the decision could affect numerous other classes of people, including coaches, nurses or social service workers, who are employed by religious institutions.
Serving with integrity
The Supreme Court’s ruling was welcomed by the U.S. Bishops. Archbishop Thomas Wenski of Miami, the chair of the Bishops’ Committee on Religious Liberty; and Bishop Michael Barber, SJ, the chair of the Catholic Education Committee, said in a statement that the decision “rightly acknowledged” that “the government has no authority to second-guess” ministerial decisions.
They emphasize, “Education is a central aspect of the Church’s mission. Indeed, teaching is one of the Spiritual Works of Mercy.” Catholic schools, they say, “have a right, recognized by the constitution, to select people who will perform ministry.”
Wednesday’s decision, the Bishops say, “means that the Church can continue to serve her neighbors with integrity.”
The Bishop chairmen of two committees of the U.S Bishops’ Conference issued a statement on Wednesday welcoming a recent U.S. Supreme Court ruling involving the religious liberty of the Little Sisters of the Poor, a charitable order of nuns.
By a 7 – 2 vote, the Supreme Court ruled on Wednesday to allow religious exemptions under the Affordable Care Act’s (ACA) requirement that employers must provide insurance coverage that includes certain forms of contraceptives.
The case, led by the Little Sisters of the Poor,arose when the religious congregation failed to obtain an exemption from the mandate on grounds of religious or moral objection. On 5 May, the Supreme Court had previously heard oral arguments on this case via telephone due to health restrictions caused by the Covid-19 crisis.
In the USCCB statement, the chairman of the Bishops’ Committee for Religious Liberty, Archbishop Thomas G. Wenski of Miami; and chairman of the Committee on Pro-Life Activities, Archbishop Joseph F. Naumann, said the Supreme Court has recognized the nuns’ right to religious freedom to “defend their community against attempts to force Catholic religious to cooperate with immoral activities.”
“Contraception is not health care,” the Bishops stated. “The government should never have mandated that employers provide it in the first place.”
An avoidable situation
Insisting that “this is a saga that did not need to occur,” the Bishops noted that there have been “multiple opportunities” for government officials to exempt conscientious objectors. They pointed out that even after the federal government expanded religious exemptions to the Health and Human Services (HHS) contraceptive mandate, some states “chose to continue this attack on conscience.”
“Time after time, administrators and attorneys refused to respect the rights of the Little Sisters of the Poor, and the Catholic faith they exemplify, to operate in accordance with the truth about sex and the human person,” the Bishops said.
A welcome ruling
Applauding the ruling, Archbishops Wenski and Naumann praised the Little Sisters of the Poor, saying that it is an international congregation that is “committed to building a culture of life.”
“They care for the poor. They uphold human dignity. They follow the teachings of Jesus Christ and His Church,” the Bishops added.
“The government has no right to force a religious order to cooperate with evil,” the Bishops insisted, hoping that Wednesday’s ruling “brings a close to this episode of government discrimination against people of faith.” At the same time, the Bishops reaffirm their resolve to “continue to be vigilant for religious freedom.”