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The US Supreme Court Weighs In on Discrimination Involving Employees of Religious Institutions and Employers with Sincerely Held Religious Beliefs

Last week, the US Supreme Court issued two rulings that affect a limited class of employers facing claims of discrimination.

First, in Our Lady of Guadalupe School v. Morrissey-Berru, the Court interpreted the scope of its previously recognized “ministerial exception” in two cases concerning alleged age and disability discrimination. That exception, grounded in the First Amendment, protects the right of employers with religious missions “to decide for themselves, free from state interference, matters of church government as well as those of faith and doctrine.” 

Rejecting a narrow approach taken by the Ninth Circuit, the Court held that the “ministerial exception” applies to a broad class of employees of employers with religious missions, including low-level teachers in religious schools who do not have extensive religious training or ministerial backgrounds. To determine whether the exception applies, the central inquiry is the extent to which an employee of an employer with a religious mission — in this case, a teacher in a Catholic school — is “entrusted with the responsibility” of educating and forming, in this case, the school’s students in their faith.

Next, in Little Sisters of the Poor Saints Peter and Paul Home v. Pennsylvania, the Supreme Court reviewed the validity of two regulations exempting employers with “sincerely held religious beliefs” or “sincerely held moral objections” from complying with other regulations issued under the Affordable Care Act that require health insurance plans to cover all contraceptive methods, namely, birth control, that are approved by the Food and Drug Administration.

Though the Court reached a different conclusion in the face of a similar challenge to regulations impacting the immigration status of so-called Dreamers, in this decision, the Court held that the two regulations at issue were procedurally proper. The Court rejected claims, with which the Third Circuit had agreed, that the two challenged regulations were enacted without proper authorization by the federal agencies that issued them, and that they were enacted without compliance with public notice and comment rules.

The key takeaway is that, through these two decisions, the Court strengthened legal protections that shield religious institutions and employers with sincerely held religious beliefs from job discrimination lawsuits.

© 2022 Jones Walker LLPNational Law Review, Volume X, Number 203
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About this Author

P.J. Kee, Jones Walker, trade secret theft attorney, computer fraud lawyer
Associate

P.J. Kee is an associate in the firm's Labor & Employment Practice Group and a member of the Trade Secret Non-Compete Team. His practice focuses on protecting clients from—as well as defending clients against alleged—trade secret theft, computer fraud and abuse, unfair competition, conspiracies, and non-compete violations. He regularly litigates cases involving these disputes in both state and federal courts, and has been on trial teams that have not only successfully obtained and fended off injunctions, but also prevailed on the merits at trial. Recently, he was...

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Michael Foley, Labor Employment, Jones Walker Law Firm
Associate

Michael Foley is an associate in the Labor & Employment Practice Group in the firm's New Orleans office.

Prior to joining Jones Walker, Mr. Foley was a law clerk for the Honorable Brian Jackson, Chief Judge of the United States District Court for the Middle District of Louisiana, and also the Honorable Bernette Johnson, Chief Justice of the Louisiana Supreme Court.  

Mr. Foley earned his Juris Doctor degree, magna cum laude, from Loyola University New Orleans College of Law, where he was a member of the Law Review Executive Board and the recipient of the J....

504.582.8853
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