Once Again: Freedom of Religion is Not Freedom to Harm

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May 6, 2020

Today, the U.S. Supreme Court heard oral argument in two cases joined for the purposes of argument, Trump v. Pennsylvania and Little Sisters of the Poor Saints Peter and Paul Home v. Pennsylvania. In the cases, both the Trump administration and Little Sisters of the Poor Saints Peter and Paul Home are asking that employers claiming religion-based reasons for opting out of the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act (ACA) birth-control insurance rule for large employers, should also be exempt from having even to give notice of their objection so their employees can receive that insurance through a separate process.

Lambda Legal Senior Counsel and Law and Policy Director Jennifer C. Pizer issued the following statement at the conclusion of today’s argument:

“Today, in argument before the Supreme Court, we heard the Trump administration distort our cherished guarantee of freedom of religion – and the authority of agencies to ignore Congress – beyond all recognition. Not only, in their framing, does freedom of religion exempt any large employer claiming a religious or moral motivation from having to include birth control coverage in its employee health care plan, but it also exempts them from participating in the objection process. This is because using the process would mean the workers then could receive this essential health benefit through another route. In other words, unless these employers can effectively block their employees’ access, the employers claim their own religious rights are violated.

“As today’s argument made clear, the Trump administration is demanding absurdly broad power to ignore Congress, which said by law that women are to be insured for their essential health needs. This includes birth control as a basic service. There is no reasonable logic that can justify employer religious exemptions for publicly traded companies, companies that do not even object, those with undefined “moral” views, and large institutions and universities that hire and serve vast portions of the public who have all sorts of religious and non-religious beliefs.  As Justice Ginsburg noted repeatedly this morning, the Trump administration’s position simply “tosses to the winds” women’s equality right under the law to have this insurance coverage.

“While the implications for women’s health if the administration’s argument is accepted are dire, so too are the implications for LGBTQ people and everyone living with HIV. LGBTQ people and their families already endure widespread abuse and discrimination in the health care context, as in other contexts, as many studies and surveys have documented, including Lambda Legal’s own “When Health Care Isn’t Caring” report. Today, with the increase in hospital mergers and the growing number of major medical centers with explicit religious affiliations, the potential of this dangerously overbroad interpretation of religious freedom to harm LGBTQ people and many others is clear. Freedom of religion has never meant allowing religious objectors to deny the rights or freedoms of others, but that is precisely what the Court is being asked to do.”

Lambda Legal’s attorneys in Trump v. Pennsylvania and Little Sisters of the Poor Saints Peter and Paul Home v. Pennsylvania are Jennifer Pizer, Camilla Taylor, Jamie Gliksberg and Omar Gonzalez-Pagan.

Read our amicus brief in the case here.

Read Lambda Legal’s report, “When Health Care Isn’t Caring."

Read about Lambda Legal’s work fighting religious exemptions here.

Read about Lambda Legal’s work in the prior religious challenge to this health benefit, Zubik v. Burwell, here.