The Supreme Court steered clear of religious liberty issues in a much watched case weighing whether existing laws governing workplace discrimination pertain to decisions made on the basis of moral objections to the stated identity of workers.
While the ruling was celebrated by progressives who saw the case as an opportunity to radically expand the types of claims covered by Title VII of the 1964 Civil Rights Act, which prohibits employers from discriminating based on race, religion, national origin, or gender, questions of how faith-based objections would be judged were left for another day.
Justices John Roberts and Neil Gorsuch joined the court’s four liberal leaning members in an opinion that narrowly answered the question of the law’s statutory definition, siding with the employee’s discrimination claims. While the defendants had said that their actions were motivated by faith, arguments made to the court were limited to arguing that the statue should not be interpreted any differently than it was at the time of its passage by Congress over 50 years ago.
Writing for the court, Justice Gorsuch went to great lengths to prove the court’s opinion on the reading of Title VII, but also dedicated several paragraphs to explaining that had the question been one of religious objection that the result might well have been different.
“The employers fear that complying with Title VII’s requirement in cases like ours may require some employers to violate their religious convictions. We are also deeply concerned with preserving the promise of the free exercise of religion enshrined in our Constitution; that guarantee lies at the heart of our pluralistic society. But worries about how Title VII may intersect with religious liberties are nothing new; they even predate the statute’s passage,” says the opinion. “While other employers in other cases may raise free exercise arguments that merit careful consideration, none of the employers before us today represent in this Court that compliance with Title VII will infringe their own religious liberties in any way.”
Justice Gorsuch notes several steps that the court and Congress have put in place to filter conflicts between employment law and religious belief including rulings that limit discrimination claims for “ministers” and the Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA).
In a dissenting opinion, Justice Samuel Alito accused the court of going too far in re-interpreting the law without action from Congress calling the decision, “legislation.”
Justice Brett Kavanagh voiced similar concerns in a separate dissent.
“When this Court usurps the role of Congress, as it does today, the public understandably becomes confused about who the policymakers really are in our system of separated powers, and inevitably becomes cynical about the oft-repeated aspiration that judges base their decisions on law rather than on personal preference,” he wrote.
Orthodox organizations had joined a long list of faith groups and religious liberty advocates in siding with employers fearing that changing the previously understood boundaries of the law in question would create a parade of horribles, severely constricting their ability to hire employees consistent with their mission and beliefs.
Alliance Defending Freedom Vice President of Appellate Advocacy John Bursch, whose firm represented the employers expressed its concerns that the ruling would lead to a slippery slope of societal changes.
In response to a question from Hamodia at a press conference held after the decision was announced, Mr. Bursch acknowledged that the opinion might hold a “silver lining” for religious liberty interests.
“I think the opinion does signal to the American people that religious rights will continue to be an important part [of how Justices look at such cases],” he said. “Traditional…views will continue to be respected and heard at the Supreme Court and time will tell the status of those arguments.”