The U.S. Supreme Court has handed down a number of critical rulings in the past several months that will impact religious liberty, sanctity of life, and human sexuality. To unpack these important rulings—both legally and culturally—NC Family welcomed three experts to our Virtual Event on Life, Liberty, and the Supreme Court, the third event in our Understanding NC’s Dynamic Landscape series.
John Stonestreet is president of the Colson Center for Christian Worldview. Ryan T. Anderson, Ph.D., is the William E. Simon senior research fellow with The Heritage Foundation. Matt Sharp is senior counsel with Alliance Defending Freedom. These three men joined NC Family President John L. Rustin to discuss the recent rulings from the nation’s highest court, and their insights are featured on this week’s episode of the Family Policy Matters radio show and podcast, in Part 1 of a 2-part show.
In the category of Protecting Religious Autonomy, the Supreme Court handed down two rulings. One case addressed a state denying funds to a religious school simply because it was religious. The second addressed employment disputes and hiring authority within religious organizations. In both instances, state or lower federal courts had ruled in favor of restricting religious liberties. “If we look across what all of these cases mean culturally,” says John Stonestreet, “we’re seeing a bigger and bigger move legally towards what we already have culturally, which is the shrinking down of religious freedoms to specifically religious activities and institutions. […] Religious liberty is not just the ability of religious schools or religious leaders or religious people to believe what they want in their own homes and houses of worship and hearts, but it’s actually the ability to order their public lives around those convictions.”
In the category of Life and Conscience Protection, our experts addressed the case of The Little Sisters of the Poor, who yet again found themselves before the U.S. Supreme Court to fight against being forced to provide abortifacient drugs in their health care plans. While the Little Sisters were victorious, Ryan Anderson doesn’t think this is the end of the road for them. “We currently have a federal mandate saying every healthcare plan needs to cover drugs and devices that could kill an unborn child. That’s an unjust law […] And the best we could do in the Trump Administration was broadening the exemption, not getting rid of the underlying objectionable law.”
Tune in to Family Policy Matters this week to hear these experts further unpack U.S. Supreme Court rulings on the critical topics of life, liberty, and sexuality. Be sure to tune in next week for Part 2! You can watch the full recording of this Virtual Event here.
JOHN RUSTIN: Today, we bring you part one of an excerpt from NC Family’s Virtual Event on Life, Liberty, and the U.S. Supreme Court, which took place on September 10th, 2020. This event featured John Stonestreet of the Colson Center for Christian Worldview, Ryan Anderson of the Heritage Foundation, and Matt Sharp, an attorney with Alliance Defending Freedom.
Well, good evening, and welcome to the North Carolina Family Policy Council series of Virtual Events entitled Understanding North Carolina’s Dynamic Landscape. This is the second part of a five-part series. As we take a look at some of the most pressing issues facing our culture today, tonight we’re taking a look at Life, Liberty and the U.S. Supreme Court.
We’re extremely pleased to welcome our special guests tonight. John Stonestreet serves as President of the Colson Center for Christian Worldview and is host of the Colson Center’s BreakPoint radio podcast. John is a highly sought-after author, speaker, and expert on Christian Worldview and Apologetics. Ryan T. Anderson, Ph.D. is a renowned author and the William E. Simon Senior Research Fellow with the Heritage Foundation. Ryan is founder and editor of Public Discourse, the online journal of the Witherspoon Institute, and last but not least, Matt Sharp is Legal Counsel with Alliance Defending Freedom, where he directs the Center for Legislative Advocacy.
For our format tonight, we will work it this way: We’ve divided a number of recent U.S. Supreme Court decisions into three categories, and here’s the roadmap for our discussion. The first category is Protecting Religious Autonomy and Equal Access, which will focus on the Court’s rulings in Espinoza, a school choice case out of Montana, and Our Lady of Guadalupe, relating to the First Amendment rights of religious schools. The second category is Life and Conscience Protection, focusing on June Medical, an abortion case out of Louisiana, and Little Sisters of the Poor, addressing the contraceptive mandate in Obamacare. And the third category is Religious Freedom and LGBT issues addressing the landmark Bostock opinion in which the court determined that sexual orientation and gender identity are protected classifications in federal employment law.
Obviously, we have a lot of ground to cover tonight, so let’s jump right in. Matt, let’s start with you and talk about religious autonomy and equal access.
MATT SHARP: Absolutely. Well, thank you for having me, John, and thank all of you for joining in. So first I want to talk about a case out of Montana called Espinoza. This case dealt with a school choice program that the state had enacted. Well, the problem is we end up with a scenario where kids going to religious schools are being denied the funding that’s available to kids going to non-religious, private schools. So the Court took this case up with the hopes that it would expand the protection for religious organizations to get equal access to these funds. And that’s exactly what the Court ultimately did. It said that the state cannot justify denying kids the ability to go to a religious school simply because it’s religious. In other words, the government was saying, because you are religious, because you teach religion and are identified with a religious church, religious ministry, you are being treated worse off than a comparable secular private school, and our Constitution doesn’t allow it. So it was a really strong ruling for the idea that religious organizations, including religious schools, have the same right to participate in government programs as other secular organizations have the right to.
In addition to the Espinoza case, we had another case come down called Our Lady of Guadalupe, and this dealt with a question about whether religious organizations have authority to hire and fire people without being subject to these nondiscrimination laws. And specifically, it was questioning whether the general rule that churches are allowed to hire and fire their ministers, whether that extends to individuals that are not necessarily titled “ministers.” Right? So the question is can a religious school have the same ability to do so. And the Court again said, yes, we want to make sure that anyone that is engaged in any sort of ministering, of teaching religious doctrines to others, is protected. And so, the Court rejected this idea that a teacher or someone like that specifically has to have the title “minister” or to have religious credentials. What this ultimately means is more autonomy, more freedom for religious organizations when it comes to those crucial hiring and firing decisions.
JOHN RUSTIN: Ryan and John, what are your thoughts or perspectives about these two cases?
RYAN ANDERSON: I’ll go first. I’ll be Debbie Downer. Just in the sense, I think these are both huge wins, right? And the ability of faith-based institutions to be able to compete on an equal footing with secular institutions for government funding is essential for equality and justice. The ability of faith-based institutions to make staffing decisions based upon their mission is essential for them fulfilling their mission. You know, we want to be concerned with the fullness of human flourishing and that the government promote the fullness of the truth about human flourishing, which means let’s take the school choice case. Most states still don’t have choice programs. If your state doesn’t have a school choice program, you might not be able to afford to send your kid to a faith-based school. And, we should be concerned with what all the public schools are teaching. So that’s where I kind of, you know, I’ll be Debbie Downer, temper the enthusiasm. They’re huge wins, but we also want to think about what’s going on in all of the other schools. Equality of funding is essential, important, but it won’t be sufficient. That’s kind of my take on that case.
JOHN RUSTIN: So, John Stonestreet, what are your thoughts?
JOHN STONESTREET: Well, I’m going to let Matt and Ryan deal mostly with the legal technicalities. They’re way smarter on those issues than me. But I think Ryan is right that there’s a downside to this and kind of the bigger picture, and not just specifically on these cases. I was really happy with the religious liberty protections for religious institutions, but if we look across what all of these cases mean culturally is that we’re seeing a bigger and bigger move legally towards what we already have culturally, which is the shrinking down of religious freedoms to specifically religious activities and institutions, which is a net loss because religious liberty is not just the ability of religious schools or religious leaders or religious people to believe what they want in their own homes and houses of worship and hearts, but it’s actually the ability to order their public lives around those convictions.
I think one lesson that we can take from this, however, that’s a really important one, especially when we look right now at various religious organizations and institutions that are feeling the heat. This should encourage them that the Court is committed to protecting religious institutions and religious organizations. And we thought some organizations and institutions compromise before the other side was even offering. I think Ryan has used this line, “starting the football game at the 50-yard line when you don’t have to,” or something like that. And I think these cases should be a strong encouragement of what the Court has intended to do. So if you’re a religious organization or a religious entity, I don’t think that’s religious freedom enough for what we want as Americans. But I can say you should have a lot of confidence that the Court’s on your side on ordering what kind of organization you are.
JOHN RUSTIN: Well, and a very important ruling for North Carolina, because we’re such a leader in the nation on school choice. And particularly with our Opportunity Scholarships, which our State Legislature just expanded the eligibility and funding for recently.
Matt, what about Life and Conscience Protection? Let’s move on to that second category that we talked about too.
MATT SHARP: Yeah. So another two big cases that came out of the Court. The first one is the case known as June Medical, and this dealt with a law Louisiana passed requiring doctors, and specifically abortion providers, to have admitting privileges at a local hospital. This is something that’s very common for any outpatient surgery. Well, several years ago in 2016, Texas had passed a similar law that the Court had struck down, and it said, “Whatever benefits there are from these admitting privileges, it’s outweighed by the burdens you’re imposing on the women.” So, when the Court took this case, a lot of people were saying, “Well, wait a second, Justice Roberts was in the dissent in that Texas case. Maybe now that the Court has changed, they’re going to overturn that and reach a different conclusion with this Louisiana law.” Unfortunately, the Court did not do that in a five-four split, and this was with the vote of Justice Roberts. The Court struck down the Louisiana law. But what was interesting was Justice Roberts. He did not join the four liberals, but rather wrote his own decision to say, “I think our hands are tied by the previous decision about Texas law. These laws seem to be about the same and have the same impact, and we need to follow precedent.” What was interesting, though, is that he rejected the reasoning used by the four liberals, this idea that you have to weigh the burdens on women versus the benefits. And he said, “No, that’s actually not the proper test. The proper test is, does this create an undue burden on women’s ability to get an abortion?” Now that may seem like kind of legal nerdery, but what it really means is a return to a much stronger standard, much more deference to the states when it comes to being able to restrict and regulate abortion.
The second pro-life case that came out, not so much life more of conscious, was Little Sisters of the Poor. Many of you are probably familiar with this case, thinking, wait, wasn’t this already resolved years ago? Little Sisters was under Obamacare being told that they were going to have to pay for abortion-inducing drugs. Now these are nuns that have no need of this, but the government compelling them to pay for something that violates their deepest convictions that they believe takes an innocent life. Well, the case had gone back and forth, the Little Sisters had won, and the Trump Administration had wanted to solidify those protections. And so, they drafted some regulations that say, “anyone that has a religious or moral objection.” So think of like secular pro-life groups. If you’ve got a religious or moral objection, we’re going to grant you an exemption so that you don’t have to pay for abortion-inducing drugs. The challenge in this case was, is that legal, can the Trump Administration do that? And the Court said, yes. In fact, the Court said government ought to be considering religion and ought to be ensuring that it’s not trampling religion in enacting these regulations.
JOHN RUSTIN: John Stonestreet, what do you think about the Little Sisters of the Poor having to go to Court to defend themselves yet again?
JOHN STONESTREET: For the third time? Right? Isn’t that, I mean, leave these poor ladies alone; let them do their job; let them live out their calling of caring for people who are, you know, suffering and dying. I mean, the work that they do, nobody else wants to do. So let them do it, and leave them alone. That’s kind of my gut reaction that I’ve had for years now ever since this case first hit the radar. It is good news, but you know, again, it underscores, I think, a deeper cultural reality that religion and religious belief is often considered to be a personal private preference. It’s considered to be your hobby. And it underscores that at the root of the conflict of so much that we see culturally right now is a collision of worldviews. You know, who’s ultimately in charge? Do we have an allegiance to anything higher than the state? Are our deeply held beliefs the most significant thing about who we are and how we live our lives, or does something else take that place? So, and good heavens these are nuns caring for the suffering and dying, right? I mean, how much more winsome can you be, and it’s not enough, you know, when you collide. So I was really grateful for this one. Hopefully this is the end of the road for them.
JOHN RUSTIN: Ryan, any reaction?
RYAN ANDERSON: It’s not. I agree with everything John just said, and I agree that hopefully it’s the end of the road. I don’t see it being the end of the road. And let me give you a couple of reasons why. Even if Trump is re-elected, the Attorney General of Pennsylvania, the day after the decision said that he’s going to continue to press this. If Trump loses, Vice President Biden has already promised that if he becomes president, he said, “I’ll go back to the Obamacare mandate before Hobby Lobby.” He doesn’t seem to have realized that they lost the Hobby Lobby case, and he can’t take us back, you know, prior to a binding Supreme Court victory for Hobby Lobby. But in his mind—and this speaks to John’s point about the cultural moment that we’re in—he wants to say, “Look, we’re not giving anyone these exemptions, no accommodations, right? We’re going back to where we were before Hobby Lobby.” So you know, that’s why I don’t think it’s over for them. And this isn’t just a religious liberty or a conscience question. It’s the pro-life issue. We currently have a federal mandate saying every healthcare plan needs to cover cost free for drugs and devices that could kill an unborn child, right? That’s an unjust law, and it’s an unjust law for everyone. And the best we could do in the Trump Administration was broadening the exemption, not getting rid of the underlying objectionable law.
– END PART ONE –