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Wednesday, July 08, 2020

Justice Kagan’s Warring Views on the Religion Clauses

Today (Wednesday) the Supreme Court decided two cases involving questions of law and religious rights: Our Lady of Guadalupe School v. Morrissey-Berru (No. 19-267, consolidated with 19-348), which addressed the scope of the First Amendment’s “ministerial exception,” and Little Sisters of the Poor Saints Peter and Paul Home v. Pennsylvania (No. 19-431, consolidated with 19-454), which determined the legality of regulations exempting employers from ACA-mandated contraceptive coverage for religious reasons. Justice Kagan joined the majority in both—in full in Our Lady and in the judgment in Little Sisters. But in what appears as case of the right hand not knowing what the left hand is doing, a footnote in her concurring opinion in Little Sisters misreads the majority opinion she joined in full in Our Lady. (Of course, she could be putting forth a revisionist reading.)

Our Lady grounds the so-called “ministerial exception” clearly in the broader doctrine of church autonomy. That doctrine, supported by the Religion Clauses, “protect[s] the right of churches and other religious institutions to decide matters ‘of faith and doctrine’ without government intrusion.” (Slip op. at 10) (quoting Hosanna-Tabor, 565 U.S., at 186). Further, “[s]tate interference in that sphere would obviously violate the free exercise of religion, and any attempt by government to dictate or even to influence such matters would constitute one of the central attributes of an establishment of religion. The First Amendment outlaws such intrusion.” (10).

Our Lady observed that “[t]he independence of religious institutions in matters of ‘faith and doctrine’ is closely linked to independence in what we have termed ‘matters of church government.’” (10) (quoting 565 U. S., at 186). The First Amendment “protect[s] [religious institution’s] autonomy with respect to internal management decisions that are essential to the institution’s central mission.” (11). What is more, “a component of this autonomy is the selection of the individuals who play certain key roles.” (11). The Court notes that the “‘ministerial exception’ was based on this insight.” (11). And the “constitutional foundation” for the Court first recognizing this exception in Hosanna-Tabor “was the general principle of church autonomy”—“independence in matters of faith and doctrine and in closely linked matters of internal government.” (12). To support this, the Court notes three earlier church autonomy cases, all of which had to do with the control of church property (though in some, but not all, “the authority and appointment of a bishops” was also at issue).

In other words, the ministerial exception is a sub-part (“component”) of the First Amendment’s church autonomy doctrine. It is sufficient to violate the church autonomy doctrine by violating the ministerial exception, but it is not necessary. One can still violate the doctrine even if the exception does not apply. Put another way, within the larger circle of the church autonomy is a smaller circle of the ministerial exception. Justice Kagan joined all of this without comment.

Now turn to her concurrence in Little Sisters. There she claims that “there is no general constitutional immunity, over and above the ministerial exception, that can protect a religious institution from the law’s operation.” (Kagan Concurrence at 3 n.1). Yet how can this be squared with Our Lady? There the Court clearly stated that the ministerial exception is a “component” of the church autonomy doctrine. It is not the entire doctrine. But Justice Kagan wants the “component” to swallow the hole. To put it differently, in Little Sisters Justice Kagan sees the ministerial exception circle and the church autonomy circle as having perfect overlap.

Actually, that may be understating it. Justice Kagan appears to view the ministerial exception as being the only way that the Religion Clauses “can protect a religious institution from the law’s operation” via a “general constitutional immunity.” But as I have noted earlier on this blog, that runs smack dab into Trinity Lutheran’s footnote 4, which notes categorical protection from laws or government actions that, among other things, specifically target religion as such. Justice Kagan joined Trinity Lutheran’s footnote 4 in full as well.

These warring views do not appear reconcilable. I guess we will have to see in future cases which version of the First Amendment Justice Kagan will endorse.

Posted by James Phillips on July 8, 2020 at 07:10 PM in Constitutional thoughts, First Amendment, Religion | Permalink

Comments

What Marty said.

Posted by: Jim Oleske | Jul 14, 2020 12:10:32 PM

Important issue. Just worth to note, that the factual configuration, plays important role here. In one case, it is alleged age discrimination, in the other " Biel alleged that St. James discharged her because she had requested a leave of absence to obtain breast cancer treatment". Moreover, the circuit held, and this is rather matter of fact, that both lacked sufficiently formal title or credential, and that, excludes the ministerial exception. So, those are factual issues, so, it can vary from case to case, depends upon the records presented to the court. Just to quote again Hosannna:

"The case before us is an employment discrimination suit brought on behalf of a minister, challenging her church’s decision to fire her. Today we hold only that the ministerial exception bars such a suit. We express no view on whether the exception bars other types of suits, including actions by employees alleging breach of contract or tortious conduct by their religious employers. There will be time enough to address the applicability of the exception to other circumstances if and when they arise. "

End of quotation:

So, it is yet possible, that in other potential cases, clear abuse may play different role. Or, that teachers, that deal or educate, not in relation to the core of the religious mission, would be excluded from that exception.

Thanks

Posted by: El roam | Jul 9, 2020 7:08:04 AM

There's no inconsistency. She's right that there's no “general constitutional immunity, over and above the ministerial exception, that can protect a religious institution from the law’s operation.” She doesn't deny that there might be other ways in which the Free Exercise Clause protects religious institutions. But such institutions aren't "generally," or broadly, immune from all laws that affect them and their employees.

Posted by: Marty Lederman | Jul 9, 2020 6:51:56 AM

James, it seems that you have confused links here. Link to little sisters, over Guadalupe(even so, it seems like amicus not the ruling). So, here to Guadalupe:

https://www.supremecourt.gov/opinions/19pdf/19-267_1an2.pdf

Posted by: El roam | Jul 8, 2020 8:07:09 PM

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