By Devin Watkins
The United States Supreme Court ruled this week on two cases that touch on the freedom of Church-run institutions to uphold Catholic moral teaching in employment decisions.
The chairman of the US Conference of Catholic Bishops’ (USCCB) Committee for Religious Liberty spoke to Vatican News about the rulings’ implications.
“Both decisions were very important,” said Archbishop Thomas Wenski of Miami. “Both of them were 7-2 votes. You have here members of both the left and right wings of the Court coming together in a consensus agreement on these two cases which do affect religious liberty in our nation.”
Contraception and Catholic entities
In the long-running Little Sisters of the Poor v. Pennsylvania case, the Supreme Court ruled in favor of the Sisters, allowing religious exemptions under the Affordable Care Act (ACA).
Commonly known as Obamacare, the ACA requires employers to provide insurance coverage for certain forms of contraceptives.
In 2011, the Little Sisters Congregation refused, said Archbishop Wenski, “because this would be a violation of their conscience because they support Catholic teaching on contraception.”
“Contraception,” he added, “is not healthcare, just like pregnancy is not a disease.”
The Trump Administration gave the Little Sisters an exemption from the ACA requirement, which some US states refused to acknowledge.
Archbishop Wenski said the Supreme Court ruling was “a narrow decision” because it only upheld the Trump Administration exemption, rather than ruling on the merits of religious liberty arguments.
“So, we must be vigilant because a future administration might reverse it, and the Little Sisters of the Poor and other Catholic entities might find themselves in the same dilemma,” he said.
Right to pick Catholic leaders
In Guadalupe School v. Morrissey-Berru and St. James School v. Biel, the Supreme Court issued a ruling with far-reaching consequences for Catholic institutions.
“The Guadalupe decision,” said Archbishop Wenski, “underscores the right of Catholic institutions to determine who is eligible to serve as a teacher or in another function in Catholic schools. In other words, the State doesn’t pick who our leaders are or who our teachers are.”
He said the Church has the right to hire and fire employees according to their “adherence to the mission of the school.”
The Guadalupe ruling turned on a principle called “ministerial exemption”, which is based on the First Amendment of the US Constitution.
Archbishop Wenski said the principle gives religious entities the right to choose its ministers.
“The State cannot weigh in on the qualifications of a minister because the State is not the Holy Office – it’s not [the Congregation for] the Doctrine of the Faith [with power] to determine whether or not a minister fulfils or fails to fulfil the religious requirements of that particular faith or denomination,” he noted.
Following Catholic teachings
As an example, Archbishop Wenski said teachers and other employees have taken the Church to court after violating their employment contract “when they agreed that they would follow the teachings of the Catholic Church, both in their teaching of the teachings in the classroom but also in their lifestyle.”
A few teachers, he said, did not have their contracts renewed after they entered into same-sex unions, leading them to sue alleging discrimination.
“Of course, we oppose – as the Catechism says – any type of unjust discrimination,” Archbishop Wenski said. “But in this case, when teachers are expected to witness – not only by their word but by their actions – a coherent witness to the Gospel and the teaching of the Catholic Church, this was certainly not unjust. And the Court agreed with us on this decision.”
Not freedom to discriminate
Justice Sonia Sotomayor, one of the two justices opposing the ruling, wrote in her dissenting opinion that the majority’s interpretation of the ministerial exemption gives religious employers excessive freedom to fire employees.
She said the ruling permits “religious entities to discriminate widely and with impunity for reasons wholly divorced from religious beliefs.”
In response, Archbishop Wenski said Justice Sotomayor “was speaking in a little bit of hyperbole.”
He said his own Archdiocese’s human resources department “tells me that people cannot be fired for just any reason.”
He gave the example of legal protections covering a whistleblower: “If a person is fired for some type of discrimination, they have recourse.”
“We have to follow the same rules as other employers,” said Archbishop Wenski, “so I think she is a little bit off-base.”