Several cases have been decided by the Supreme Court this year, and many of those cases have had an impact on the rights of employees. A few months ago, we talked about the rights and employment protections for LGBTQ employees. There have been several Supreme Court decisions that have impacted the rights of employees of religious organizations.
Religious Employers and Health Insurance
In 2011, the Health Resources and Services Administration (HRSA) regulations required the health care plans under the Affordable Care Act to cover contraceptive methods and sterilization procedures. However, there have been consistent objections to those requirements for years.
On July 8, 2020, the Supreme Court of the United States issued two 7-2 decisions that upheld exemptions for religious employers from normally applicable laws. In Little Sisters of the Poor Saints Peter and Paul Home v Pennsylvania, the Supreme Court addressed the requirements for religious employers in their health care coverage.
Employers have a requirement to offer health insurance plans to their employees that will provide coverage ”minimum essential coverage”. Under the Affordable Care Act, this type of coverage includes contraceptive methods. Religious employers who objected to that requirement were exempt. Several states took issue with that exemption.
In Little Sisters of the Poor Saints Peter and Paul Home v. Pennsylvania, the exemption was deemed lawful. As a result, employees of religious businesses or organizations who had problems with certain forms of contraception may not have the ability to obtain forms of contraception that they can afford.
Workplace Discrimination by Employers
Little Sisters was not the only case that was addressed by the Supreme Court this year. In Our Lady of Guadalupe School v. Morrissey-Berru, the Supreme Court had to address another issue that also deals with employment law. In the Our Lady case, an issue was raised by two former teachers. The two were former teachers at a Roman Catholic school and were terminated for different reasons.
One teacher was terminated for age discrimination, and the other was terminated after she sought medical leave because of her need for medical treatment after her cancer diagnosis. Kristen Biel was fired after she had undergone chemotherapy, and her discrimination suit was brought up on the basis of disability.
At the end, the Supreme Court granted a summary judgment in the school’s favor because Morrissey-Beru could be classified as a ”minister”. The ministerial exception prevents some types of employment discrimination claims from being brought against religious institutions and organizations in court.
Since Morrissey-Berru held the title of ”minister”, the religious institution was exempt from anti-discrimination laws. In making this decision, the Court made it known that religious organizations and institutions have their own independence when it comes to making decisions related to employment.
However, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit had a different opinion and reversed the lower court’s decision. Under their findings, Morrissey-Berru could not be classified as a ”minister” because she had taken one course on the Catholic Church’s history. It was also revealed that the teacher did not have any type of background related to ministry.
According to the schools, both women held importation duties that related to religion, including being prayer leaders and teaching classes about Catholicism. However, the judge in the case stated that the teachers taught mainly secular subjects and were not required to be Catholic.
Since Morrissey-Beru did not have a ministry background and was not known to the public as a minister, the court could not classify her as a minister. Biel died last year, shortly after the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit cleared her suit to proceed.
In May, the Court listened to the oral arguments and ruled in favor of the Catholic schools. According to the ruling, the government does not have the right to control the decisions of a church school in regard to who teaches the religion classes.
As the above cases and the decisions that were made in the cases demonstrate, employers who contend religious objections to laws that would be generally applicable could find themselves in uncommon legal positions. These types of positions have allowed religious institutions and organizations to use specific defenses and objections.
Currently, it is not clear at this point how the rulings in the cases could impact the LGBTQ employees of religious businesses, institutions, and organizations. However, religious organizations should recognize that the ”ministerial exception” will not apply to every position in a religious school, business, or organization.
The ministerial exception should be limited to the employees who consistently perform the religious duties that the exception actually applies to. For example, someone who serves food in the school cafeteria is not responsible for leading prayer or transmitting the Catholic faith and would not be considered as a minister of faith leader.
There are federal laws and state laws that offer protection for employees, especially as it relates to the following:
- Breach of contract
- Severance packages
- Teachers’ Rights
Both of the cases offer protection for religious employers. The case of Our Lady of Guadalupe vs. Morrissey-Beru could make it challenging for employees to start a discrimination claim against the employer. However, when things are challenging and difficult, it does not make it impossible. All behavior from religious employers is not legal.
At Villaume & Schiek, our team is here to support you with any employment concern you may have. For over 30 years, we have represented a long list of clients throught the Twin Cities and Bloomington. Regardless of the legal challenge you are facing, we are determined to achieve the result that will meet your needs.
You have rights that should be protected and you have a voice that should be heard. We are dedicated to working with you and finding the best solution. If you are facing challenges in your workplace, please do not hesitate to contact us for a consultation.
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