BREAKING: Espinoza v. Montana Department of Revenue
On June 30th, in a 5-4 decision, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that states cannot exclude religious schools from tuition assistance programs for students attending private schools. This ruling is another attack on the long-standing principal of separation of church and state disguised as an effort to protect religious freedom and hinders efforts to strengthen public education.
Espinoza v. Montana Department of Revenue was brought by a group of parents with children enrolled at Stillwater Christian School seeking tuition assistance from Montana’s tax-credit scholarship program. To comply with the state constitution’s ban on direct or indirect public funding of religious education, Montana’s legislature prohibited the use of the program’s scholarship funds at religious schools. The Supreme Court has ruled that the exclusion of religious schools from that program is unconstitutional, requiring Montana to redirect public funds to religious education and opening other states with similar policies to lawsuits.
As Justice Sonia Sotomayor wrote in her dissent, this ruling “weakens this country’s longstanding commitment to a separation of church and state beneficial to both.” It undermines public education by redirecting state funds to private, religious schools. It also mandates the use of taxpayer dollars to support schools that freely discriminate against vulnerable populations, including LGBTQ+ students and families, and pregnant or parenting staff and students. We should be supporting public schools, not defunding them to support private institutions that often discriminate against members of the communities they supposedly serve.
The Maryland General Assembly has considered bills during the past two legislative sessions that would halt state funding for any private school that discriminates against students, faculty, or staff. We need to continue pushing for this policy and others to prevent private schools from using public dollars to fund discrimination. Taxpayers shouldn’t have to see their money used to help schools that don’t offer evidenced-based sex education and that discriminate against pregnant or parenting students, unmarried pregnant or parenting staff and faculty, LGBTQ+ students, and students with LGBTQ+ parents.
On June 29th, in a 5-4 decision in June Medical Services, LLC v. Russo, the U.S. Supreme Court has upheld the right to abortion across the country. In an opinion written by Justice Stephen Breyer, the Court reaffirmed that anti-choice laws designed to close clinics are unconstitutional and that abortion providers have the right to challenge those laws on behalf of their patients. This decision is a major victory that protects abortion access nationwide and patients’ right to freely make decisions about their reproductive healthcare.
In June, the Supreme Court struck down a Louisiana law that would have required doctors who perform abortions to have admitting privileges at a hospital within 30 miles of where they practice. If the law had gone into effect, Louisiana would have been left with just one abortion provider to serve the entire state, making abortion almost entirely inaccessible. The Supreme Court ruled that the law is thus unconstitutional, finding that it “places a substantial obstacle in the path of women seeking an abortion.”
The Louisiana law at the center of June is an example of what’s known as a targeted restriction on abortion providers, or TRAP law. TRAP laws are deceptive anti-choice policies that impose medically unnecessary, costly requirements on abortion providers. TRAP laws are marketed as efforts to protect patients’ health, but they’re actually designed to shut down reproductive healthcare clinics. Examples of TRAP laws include requiring clinics to meet building requirements for ambulatory surgical centers, requiring clinics to be located near hospitals or away from schools, and requiring clinics to give private medical information about their patients to the state government.
By invalidating Louisiana’s law, the Supreme Court has reaffirmed that TRAP laws constitute an unconstitutional barrier to abortion access. They undermine the right to abortion guaranteed by Roe v. Wade by making it impossible for providers to continue serving patients and forcing clinics to close.
In their June ruling, the Supreme Court also upheld providers’ right to sue on behalf of their patients. Louisiana argued that abortion providers didn’t have the standing to challenge the state’s TRAP law because they are “third parties” that have “conflicts of interest” and “insufficiently close relationships with their patients.” This argument, of course, was nonsense. It relied on stigmatizing and unfounded stereotypes about abortion providers’ motivations and professionalism. Plus, the Supreme Court previously ruled that abortion providers can sue on behalf of their patients because patients themselves often cannot go to court due to privacy concerns and the time constraint of pregnancy. By striking down Louisiana’s challenge, the Supreme Court has recognized what should already be clear – abortion providers care for their patients like all healthcare professionals do, and they have the right to fight to keep providing care.
This case shouldn’t have been contentious – in 2016’s Whole Woman’s Health v. Hellerstedt, the Court struck down a Texas TRAP law identical to Louisiana’s, ruling that the law placed an “undue burden” on patients’ access to abortion without producing any health benefits. The Supreme Court upheld precedent this time, but June won’t be the end of attacks on the right to abortion or underhanded anti-choice efforts to restrict abortion access. We have to continue advocating for pro-choice policies, holding anti-choice politicians accountable, and defending everyone’s right to control their own body.
NARAL Pro-Choice Maryland celebrates this ruling and remains committed to defending the right to legal, safe abortion care in Maryland. We’ve fought for pro-choice policies that both protect Marylanders’ right to abortion care and make our state a safe harbor for patients traveling from states with restrictive, anti-choice laws. While June is a major victory for reproductive justice advocates, there’s still plenty of work to be done in Maryland and across the country to ensure that everyone has the freedom to control their own reproductive health.
R.G. & G.R. Harris Funeral Homes v. EEOC, Bostock v. Clayton County and Altitude Express v. Zarda
In another landmark reproductive justice case this month, on June 15, the Supreme Court ruled in a 6-3 decision that Title VII of the Civil Rights Act prohibits employment discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity, a major advance for LGBTQ rights in the United States.
The Supreme Court issued a combined opinion authored by Justice Neil Gorsuch for R.G. & G.R. Harris Funeral Homes v. EEOC, Bostock v. Clayton County and Altitude Express v. Zarda, three cases brought by employees who were fired on the basis of their LGBTQ identities. The Court unequivocally stated that Title VII, which bans sex discrimination in employment, applies to sexual orientation and gender identity: “An employer who fires an individual merely for being gay or transgender violates Title VII.”
Finally, with this ruling, no one can legally be fired for being LGBTQ. This is huge win for LGBTQ Americans, especially those who live in any of the 25 states that don’t have laws explicitly banning employment discrimination based on sexual orientation or gender identity.
R.G. & G.R. Harris Funeral Homes v. EEOC was the first major trans rights case to reach the Supreme Court. It was brought by Aimee Stephens, a transgender woman who was fired from her job as a funeral director after she told the company’s owner she would be transitioning. Stephens passed away in May, so she didn’t see the final outcome of her case, but her family was determined to carry on her fight to advance the rights of transgender people. “Aimee is an inspiration,” said her wife, Donna Stephens. “She has given so many hope for the future of equality for LGBTQ people in our country, and she has rewritten history.”
NARAL Pro-Choice Maryland is thrilled to celebrate Pride Month with this victory and is committed to continue working with our allies to fight for the rights of LGBTQ Marylanders, especially in the face of attacks by the Trump-Pence administration. Just this month, the administration has eliminated anti-discrimination protections for LGBTQ people in healthcare and health insurance and proposed a rule to block transgender people from accessing single-sex homeless shelters. These two measures are just the latest in the years-long series of efforts by the administration to undermine LGBTQ rights in the US.
These rulings aren’t the only important decisions coming from the Supreme Court this month. The Supreme Court will soon issue two more opinions with potentially huge impacts on reproductive freedom — they’ll decide whether religious organizations can discriminate against their employees and whether employers have to continue covering birth control as part of their employee health insurance plans. Below, we’ve outlined the other cases we’re monitoring and what they could mean for you.
As always, NARAL Pro-Choice Maryland is committed to fighting for your reproductive rights, even if the Supreme Court’s new conservative majority (thanks to two Trump appointments) chooses to legalize discrimination and anti-choice restrictions on healthcare.
Little Sisters of the Poor v. Pennsylvania and Trump v. Pennsylvania
These two consolidated cases have the potential to eliminate insurance coverage of contraception for hundreds of thousands of Americans and are the culmination of years of efforts by the religious right to restrict birth control access.
Currently, the Affordable Care Act (ACA) guarantees co-pay-free contraception coverage to most employees through their employer-provided health insurance — what’s known as the contraception mandate. Little Sisters is challenging the legality of a Trump administration rule that would severely undermine that mandate.
The Obama administration established accommodations to balance reproductive healthcare access and religious freedom in the contraception mandate: churches were exempted entirely and religious nonprofits and for-profit companies were eligible for a workaround so they wouldn’t have to directly pay for birth control. But anti-choice forces weren’t satisfied. In 2017, the Trump administration issued a rule that expands eligibility for the exemption granted to churches to any employer with a religious or “moral” objection to contraception, without defining what, exactly, counts as a moral objection.
If this rule goes into effect, virtually any employer could claim an exemption to the contraception mandate for any reason, as long as they frame it as a moral objection. That means that the contraception coverage millions of people gained through the ACA could disappear for many. And for low-income people who can’t afford the out-of-pocket costs of birth control hormonal birth control pills, for example, can cost $600 per year — losing coverage means losing access.
The Trump rule follows years of anti-choice extremists chipping away at the contraception mandate under the guise of “religious freedom.” Don’t be fooled — this rule doesn’t protect religious freedom. Instead, it allows employers to impose their beliefs on their employees and control their reproductive health decisions.
Your boss shouldn’t be making decisions about your birth control. In Maryland, we’re lucky to have elected officials who understand that and who are working to pass proactive legislation to counter anti-choice efforts to restrict birth control access. NARAL Pro-Choice Maryland will continue advocating to make every form of birth control accessible, affordable, and available for everyone who asks for it.
Our Lady of Guadalupe School v. Morrissey-Berru and St. James School v. Biel
In addition to threatening reproductive healthcare access, this month the Supreme Court could give religious employers broad discretion to discriminate against their employees with their ruling in these two cases.
Agnes Deirdre Morrissey-Berru and Kristin Biel were both teachers at Catholic schools who sued their employers for discrimination: Morrissey-Berru for age-based discrimination and Biel for disability discrimination. However, both their schools argued that the teachers are “ministers” and therefore subject to what’s called the “ministerial exception” — a policy established by a previous Supreme Court decision that says that religious institutions don’t have to comply with federal anti-discrimination laws when dealing with employees deemed “ministers.”
With these two cases, the Supreme Court could expand the ministerial exception and rule that any employee who carries out religious duties for a religious employer can’t sue for employment discrimination, not just ministers. If the Supreme Court expands the ministerial exception, teachers and other employees at religious schools could lose federal anti-discrimination laws, meaning they’d lose access to important protections from sexual harassment, pregnancy discrimination, unfair pay, and sex discrimination. These workplace protections are all key to individuals’ economic wellbeing and, thus, their ability to freely make choices about their reproductive health and family formation.
NARAL Pro-Choice Maryland is committed to fighting for workplace policies that promote reproductive freedom, like paid leave, fair scheduling, and accommodations for pregnant workers. Everyone has the right to work without facing discrimination.
Written by Olivia Graziano, Shurberg Legal & Policy Research Intern