Catholic Culture Overview
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Little Sisters win 3rd Supreme Court victory

July 08, 2020

The US Supreme Court gave two victories for religious freedom on July 8, with separate rulings that confirmed the right of parochial schools to set their own standards for the employment of teachers, and upheld the demand of the Little Sisters of the Poor to be exempt from covering contraception in health-insurance programs.

In both cases, the Court decision won support by a comfortable 7-2 vote, with only Justices Ginsburg and Sotomayor dissenting.

In twin cases involving Catholic schools in California (Our Lady of Guadalupe School v. Morrissey-Berry and St. James Catholic School v. Biel), the Court upheld the schools’ claim to be exempt from ordinary anti-discrimination laws. The justices agreed that employees of a religious institution—in this case, teachers in a Catholic school—fall under the “ministerial exemption” that gives faith-based institutions the freedom to set their own standards for ministry. The “ministerial exemption” preserves the freedom of religious institutions from government control.

The second major decision, in Little Sisters of the Poor v. Commonwealth of Pennsylvania, marked the third time that the Little Sisters have taken their case to the Supreme Court and won, for health-insurance coverage that does not include support for contraception and abortion.

Writing for the majority in the Little Sisters case, Justice Clarence Thomas said:

For over 150 years, the Little Sisters have engaged in faithful service and sacrifice, motivated by a religious calling to surrender all for the sake of their brother. . . . But for the past seven years, they—like many other religious objectors who have participated in the litigation and rulemakings leading up to today’s decision—have had to fight for the ability to continue in their noble work without violating their sincerely held religious beliefs.

The Becket Fund for Religious Freedom represented successful plaintiffs in both of the Supreme Court cases announced on July 8. Commenting on the Little Sisters case, Mark Rienzi, the president of Beckett, said: “America deserves better than petty governments harassing nuns.”


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