Abortion Access

The Supreme Court Is Embracing A Reckless And Dangerous Definition Of Religious Freedom

  Rob Boston

The U.S. Supreme Court this morning handed down two rulings that expand on the conservative majority’s increasingly warped and discriminatory interpretation of religious freedom.

In Trump v. Pennsylvania Little Sisters of the Poor v. Pennsylvania, the court ruled that many employers and universities have the right to opt out of a provision in the Affordable Care Act that requires birth control to be provided at no cost. Houses of worship and religious ministries were already exempt from this rule, but the Trump administration expanded the exemption to include any employer (that is not publicly traded) with a religious objection and almost any that claims a “moral objection.”

What this means is that just about any worker or student at most businesses or universities (even if they’re largely secular) can be denied access to birth control in health care plans if a boss decides that he or she objects to artificial contraceptives. In effect, workers’ private and personal reproductive health care matters are now at the mercy of the religious beliefs of their bosses.

The case was brought by Pennsylvania to challenge the new Trump administration rules. An order of nuns, the Little Sisters of the Poor, who own and operate a nationwide chain of nursing homes, inserted themselves into the litigation and aligned with the federal government. But no one was even trying to force the nuns to pay for or provide birth control. Their presence provided a distraction from the administration’s real goal of exploiting religious freedom to continue a crusade against reproductive freedom. As a result of today’s decision, countless workers and students – many of whom are women and LGBTQ people making a modest wage – will be denied access to a crucial facet of modern medical care. Indeed, it’s estimated that hundreds of thousands of workers may lose access to birth control under this ruling.

The second case that came down today, Our Lady of Guadalupe School v. Morrissey Berru, concerns the ability of private religious schools to fire teachers at will, even if they have minimal religious duties, by classifying them as clergy under the “ministerial exception.” The court greatly relaxed limits on these schools’ ability to fire many of these educators, including under circumstances whereby the employee would have been protected just about anywhere else, because of their age, sexual orientation or health status.

These rulings, taken in conjunction with a decision last week in which the court greatly hindered the ability of states to restrict taxpayer funding of private religious schools, show a court that has embraced a dangerous interpretation of religious freedom. It’s a definition that, far from protecting that hallowed principle, turns it upside down.

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