EDITORIAL: Divided court finds common ground in protecting religious freedom

The U.S. Supreme Court stood up for religious freedom religious freedom and conscience protections in two decisions handed down on July 8, both of which involved Catholic entities.

In the first case, which involved the Little Sisters of the Poor, the court, in a 7-2 decision, protected religious ministries from being forced to violate their beliefs. The case involved an executive order by the Trump Administration to broaden the exemption to the Affordable Care Act’s mandate that employers include coverage of contraceptives in the health plans they offer employees. Under the Trump Administration’s executive order, the exemption would apply to more religious ministries, including the Little Sisters of the Poor, who operate nursing homes for the elderly poor around the country.

The Little Sisters of the Poor have been fighting the mandate for nearly a decade, arguing that by implementing it the federal government was forcing them to violate their conscience and religious beliefs. 

The Catholic Church’s teaching that artificial contraception is a violation of God’s plan for married love and the transmission of life is well known – and often ridiculed. One would think it would be obvious that following one’s religious beliefs would be protected by the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution. But, alas, things are usually more complicated than that.

Several states, including Pennsylvania and New Jersey, filed suit claiming the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services did not have the authority to broaden the exemption. The Supreme Court disagreed.

“Contraception is not health care, and the government should never have mandated that employers provide it in the first place,” Archbishop Thomas G. Wenski of Miami, chairman of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops’ Committee for Religious Liberty, and Archbishop Joseph F. Naumann of Kansas City, Kansas, and chairman of the USCCB’s Committee on Pro-Life Activities, said in a joint statement. “Yet even after it had, there were multiple opportunities for government officials to do the right thing and exempt conscientious objectors. 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. Even after the federal government expanded religious exemptions to the HHS contraceptive mandate, Pennsylvania and other states chose to continue this attack on conscience.

“We welcome the Supreme Court’s decision,” they added. “We hope it brings a close to this episode of government discrimination against people of faith. Yet, considering the efforts we have seen to force compliance with this mandate, we must continue to be vigilant for religious freedom.”

In the second case, teachers sued two Catholic schools in Southern California claiming they were victims of discrimination when they were dismissed from their jobs. Again, the Supreme Court landed on the side of religious freedom.

At the core of the case was the understanding of Catholic education as an integral mission of the Church in forming students in the faith. The schools argued, and the Supreme Court agreed, that part of the mission of every Catholic school teacher is to teach the faith, and as such they have a ministerial role. And under the First Amendment, Catholic schools have the right, free of government interference, to choose teachers who will teach and model the Catholic faith.

People of faith can often feel under siege by the culture around them, their beliefs dismissed as archaic and unreasonable and often discriminatory and oppressive. At every turn, there are attempts to whittle away at the First Amendment’s protection of the free exercise of religion. There is a growing sense that many in modern society want to impose a new understanding of the Frist Amendment to mean it only protects the private practice of our faith, that as soon as we share our faith with the world, which Christ commissioned all believers to do, we are infringing on the rights of others.

Balancing what are often the conflicting rights and interests of everyone in a society as diverse as ours is a delicate endeavor. That is why it is so important to remain vigilant in protecting those fundamental rights our country was founded on, including the right to believe as you wish, to worship as you wish, to share your beliefs as you wish.

It is interesting to note that the decisions in these two cases were decided by 7-2 votes, substantive margins in an era when contentious issues are usually narrowly decided. These decisions drew support from both sides, liberal and conservative, of what can sometimes be a deeply polarized Supreme Court. It is a sign that even bitterly divided ideological opponents can find common ground in protecting religious freedom.

We pray that common ground will hold firm and spread throughout our society.