Although all eyes are turned to this week’s U.S. Supreme Court hearing about the health care law, the court has already made several other important decisions so far this term. Three of these decisions will significantly impact key AAUW issues.
In Coleman v. Court of Appeals of Maryland, the court decided that state employees cannot sue in federal court under the “self-care” provisions of the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA). The plurality opinion in this 5–4 decision distinguished this case from an earlier one that held that state employees could bring FMLA claims based on the “family-care” provisions to federal court.
Justices Anthony Kennedy, John Roberts, Antonin Scalia, and Samuel Alito reasoned that Congress did not pass FMLA to counter sex discrimination in granting leave due to an employee’s own illness or incapacitation. Therefore, they argued, the right to sue a state should not extend to the self-care provision. These justices also specifically said that the fact that single parents — who are predominantly women — would be more negatively impacted by the gender-neutral policies is not enough to make the self-care provision discriminatory. The family-care provisions retain the special right that FMLA grants to sue states.
The troubling analysis used by the plurality of the court prompted Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg to read her dissenting opinion from the bench. She said that the majority decision would make it hard for women “to live balanced lives, at home and in gainful employment.” AAUW led the advocacy charge that resulted in the enactment of FMLA and agrees with Ginsburg’s analysis. AAUW will continue to work to strengthen FMLA, especially in light of this unfortunate decision.
In Hosanna-Tabor Evangelical Lutheran Church and School v. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, the court was asked to determine if employees of religious institutions are protected by federal anti-discrimination laws. In this case, Cheryl Perich was fired from her job as a teacher at a religious school when she tried to assert her rights under the Americans with Disabilities Act. The school claimed that federal anti-discrimination laws did not apply because of the “ministerial exception” — a court-made interpretation of the First Amendment intended to protect freedom of religion. In its 9–0 decision, the court found for the first time that the ministerial exception applies to employment discrimination laws. AAUW was disappointed in this ruling, as we oppose all forms of discrimination and support constitutional protection for the civil rights of all individuals.
The third case offered a small slice of good news. The court’s decision not to hear Alpha Delta Chi-Delta Chapter v. Charles B. Reed — a challenge to the anti-bias rules that San Diego State University uses to deny recognition to student groups that refuse membership to certain people because of the groups’ religious beliefs — means that the court’s 2010 ruling on this issue still stands. In that ruling, the court upheld the rules of the University of California Hastings College of Law despite a religious student group’s argument that the anti-bias policies were inconsistent with their beliefs. AAUW supported the Hastings decision and applauds the court’s decision to let that precedent stand.
AAUW firmly supports a fair, balanced, and independent judiciary because so many of our fundamental rights and liberties have been established and are protected by the federal courts and Supreme Court precedents. To learn more about AAUW’s work on these issues, please visit our position page.