Monday, June 5, 2017
Today, the Supreme Court handed down a unanimous ruling, in a case called Advocate Health Care Network v. Stapleton, interpreting a particular provision of the federal employee-benefits statute, ERISA. Justice Kagan's opinion is a clear, engagingly written, concise, and technically sound example of the judicial craft. It also vindicates Congress's important effort to protect the religious freedom of religious hospitals, charities, and social-welfare institutions and has clear implications for ongoing debates about these institutions' religious liberties, about the freedom of conscience in the healthcare context, and about the separation of church and state.
The provision at issue in Monday's ruling had a clear purpose: to respect the important contributions that religious institutions, including hospitals, make to the common good and to keep government officials out of the business of deciding which institutions are 'really' religious and which are not. Congress was affirming the bedrock principle that religious freedom and exercise are not limited to private prayer or weekend worship; rather, they include providing care to the sick, the poor, and the vulnerable.
For several years, activists and class-action lawyers have worked to convince courts to interpret Congress's effort narrowly, in a way that would have imposed significant costs on religious institutions and undermined their faith-inspired social-welfare activities. The Court's decision both affirms and embraces Congress's sound judgment, decades ago, to prevent regulators from trying to enforce a line between what 'churches' do in private and what religious institutions do in the public square.
Increasingly, it is being argued that the distinctive mission and character of religious institutions should lose legal protection when these institutions are involved in providing health care, or work to provide adoption services or foster care, or cooperate with government to solve problems of poverty, human trafficking, education, and so on. Many believe that these institutions should not be allowed to object, as a matter of religious conscience to -- for example -- providing abortions or abortion referrals. And while it is primarily the job of Congress and other legislators to protect these institutions' religious-conscience rights, today's decision by the Court is a welcome and well-crafted vindication of one such effort.