SCOTUS Strengthens Employers’ Rights to Discriminate Against Women

SCOTUS Strengthens Employers' Rights to Discriminate Against Women
On Wednesday, the Court ruled in favor of any employer using religious grounds to discriminate against women in health care insurance coverage and exempted religious employers from anti-discrimination laws. Pictured: Outside the U.S. Supreme Court in June 2014 while waiting for a decision in the Burwell v. Hobby Lobby case. (American Life League / Flickr, Creative Commons)

Today was a disappointing day for women’s rights before the Supreme Court.

In two decisions—Little Sisters of the Poor Saints Peter and Paul Home v. Pennsylvania and Our Lady of Guadalupe School v. Morrissey-Berru—the Court:

  • ruled in favor of employers’ rights to deny women access to contraception coverage in health care insurance, and
  • exempted religious employers from anti-discrimination laws.

Little Sisters v. Pennsylvania

At issue in Little Sisters v. Pennsylvania was the Trump administration’s broad exemptions for employers from the Affordable Care Act’s contraceptive coverage mandate.

Trump’s policy allowed any type of employer to gain an exemption to federally required coverage of birth control in employee health insurance plans by claiming that contraception violates their religious beliefs or their “non-religious moral convictions”—vastly expanding earlier exceptions for religious organizations.

The policy expanded on the Supreme Court’s 2014 ruling in Burwell v. Hobby Lobby that applied to religious objections by closely-held private corporations by allowing any employer to claim an exception based not only on religion but also on any “moral conviction.”

SCOTUS Strengthens Employers' Rights to Discriminate Against Women
Outside the U.S. Supreme Court while waiting for the court’s decision in the Burwell v. Hobby Lobby case in June 2014. (American Life League / Flickr, Creative Commons)

The decision vastly expands the number of employers who can now claim an exemption, potentially depriving hundreds of thousands of women from obtaining medically necessary and life-saving contraception. This decision will no doubt disproportionately harm low-wage workers and people of color.


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The decision is part of the Trump administration’s multi-pronged attack on women’s access to contraception—which also includes the domestic gag order, which slashed the Title X network’s capacity in half since it went into effect in March of 2019.

Our Lady of Guadalupe School v. Morrissey-Berru

In the second decision, Our Lady of Guadalupe School v. Morrissey-Berru, the Supreme Court allowed religious employers to discriminate against their employees by broadly interpreting the “ministerial exception” to anti-discrimination laws.

Eight years ago, the Supreme Court created an exemption from anti-discrimination laws for churches and other religious organizations when hiring religious leaders, or “ministers.” The court’s decision today vastly expands that exception to apply to all teachers in religious schools—and potentially all employees.

The case involved the firing of two fifth-grade lay teachers from private Catholic schools in California. Kristen Biel was fired after being diagnosed with breast cancer. Agnes Morrissey-Berru was fired when she turned 64. They both alleged they were fired for discriminatory reasons—disability and age—in violation of federal anti-discrimination laws.

In today’s decision, the Court interpreted the ministerial exception broadly to apply to both Biel and Morrissey-Berru—despite the fact that they were lay employees.

The decision will likely strip from about 300,000 lay teachers at religious schools across the country workplace legal protections from discrimination. The broad language of the decision means the ministerial exception could apply to clerks, secretaries, janitors and other school staff—which would have an even broader effect, allowing religious schools and organizations to operate outside all anti-discrimination laws by which every other employer is bound.

This decision gives religious employers a free pass to discriminate against their employees and use religion to justify race, sex, disability or age discrimination against employees who clearly aren’t ministers.

SCOTUS Strengthens Employers' Rights to Discriminate Against Women
Outside the U.S. Supreme Court while waiting for the court’s decision in the Burwell v. Hobby Lobby case in June 2014. (American Life League / Flickr, Creative Commons)

These two decisions are the result of a long-running campaign of the Christian right and the U.S. Roman Catholic bishops to carve out arenas of public life where religious institutions, individuals and businesses may evade civil rights and labor laws in the name of religious liberty.

Today, the Supreme Court vindicated these efforts by ruling in favor of religious rights over women’s rights.


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About

Carrie N. Baker, J.D., Ph.D., is a Professor in the Program for the Study of Women and Gender at Smith College. Her 2007 book The Women's Movement Against Sexual Harassment won the National Women’s Studies Association Sara A. Whaley Book Prize. Her second book, Fighting the U.S. Youth Sex Trade: Gender, Race, and Politics, tells the story of activism against youth involvement in the sex trade in the United States between 1970 and 2015. Baker is the President of the Abortion Rights Fund of Western Massachusetts.