The Catholic University of America


Welcome to the Religion Section of our webpage. This front page will reflect our most current information on either constitutional law or statutory law on religion affecting educational institutions. 

Principles of Religious Liberty Memorandum issued to all administrative and executive agencies from AG Sessions regarding religious liberty protections in federal law. Issued October 6, 2017. Further Guidance on Implementation on this issue directed to the Justice Department on the same date. 

Interim Final Rule on Religious Exemptions and Accommodations for Coverage of Certain Contraceptive Services under the ACA, to be published in Federal Register on 10/13/17.  
This interim final rule has been issued to provide conscience protections for individuals and entities with sincerely held religious beliefts. 

For write ups on the latest cases and other developments in this area, see the Stradley Ronon Nonprofit and Religious Organizations web page for a series of timely alerts, which are posted halfway down the page. 

Advocate Health Care Network v. Stapleton, Case No. 16-74, (U.S. Supreme Ct. June 5, 2017) 

In a unanimous 8-0 decision, the Supreme Court of the United States declared that church and church-affiliated nonprofits’ pension plans are not subject to ERISA’s strict funding and disclosure requirements. The Employee Retirement Income Security Act (“ERISA”), enacted in 1974, protects employee retirement benefits by requiring employers to ensure their pension plans are sufficiently funded. ERISA sought to remedy the trend of employees paying into their pensions during employment, only to learn upon retirement that the pension fund was empty.

Strictly exempt from ERISA’s pension requirements is the “church-plan,” defined as “[a] plan established and maintained for its employees . . . by a church . . . [which] includes a plan maintained by an organization . . . the principal purpose . . . of which is the administration or funding of [such] plan . . . for the employees of a church . . . if such organization is controlled by or associated with a church” (referred to as “principal-purpose organizations”).

Since 1980, religiously affiliated organizations such as schools, hospitals, orphanages, and other nonprofits have been operating under this “church-plan” exemption without issue.
Current and former employees of three religiously affiliated hospitals operating under this exemption sued their employers, contending they should not qualify for the “church-plan” exemption to ERISA because their pension plans were not “established” by a church. These employees argued that the text of the ERISA statute itself exempts only those pension plans both created and managed by churches, thereby excluding most hospitals, schools, and other church-affiliates.

The district and appellate courts in all three cases agreed with this statutory interpretation, deciding that the hospitals had been improperly skirting ERISA regulations for over 30 years, and now owed significant sums to their pensioned employees – estimated to be an aggregate $4 billion.

On March 27, 2017, the hospitals argued to the Supreme Court on appeal that, the ERISA exemption extends to their pension plans, as the statutory language does not require that the “principal-purpose organizations” have been “established” by a church. Justice Kagan, writing for a unanimous Court, reversed the lower courts, and stressed there is no “establishment” requirement. This decision, in effect, allows church-affiliated organizations to continue administering their pensions independently of ERISA funding and disclosure requirements.


See Supreme Court Backs Church Hospitals, Schools in Case on Pension Rules for commentary on this decision’s effect on Catholic schools.


Trinity Lutheran Church v. Missouri DNR,  Case No. 15-577, (U. S. Supreme Court, June 26, 2017) 

At issue in this case was whether a preschool/child care center could qualify for a state grant program that assisted with playground resurfacing using recycled tires. The Trinity Lutheran Church applied for such a grant, and would have received one, but for the fact that the state interpreted Art.1, Section 7 of the Missouri Constitution (a Blaine Amendment) to prohibit use of state funds for an entity affiliated with a Church. The Supreme Court held that the Free Exercise Clause of the First Amendment prohibits the state from denying an otherwise available public benefit to the Church on account of its religious status. For an in depth analysis see the SCOTUSblog article by Hillary Byrnes, USCCB, The Constitution provides a level playing field for people of faith

(nb on case below, Supreme Court decision followed this decision, but only as to the immigration provisions.) 

International Refugee Assistance Project et al. v. Trump, No. 17-1351, (C.A. 4th Cir.), May 25, 2017, 2017 WL 2273306.  

In a 205 page opinion the 4th Circuit affirmed in substantial part the district court's issuance of a nationwide preliminary injunction barring enforcement of the revised travel ban issued by the President which would have limited travel from 6 predominantly Muslim countries.  The Court of Appeals found the order unconstitutional in a 10-3 opinion. 

The focus of the case was on section 2(C) of the challenged  Executive Order 13780, Temporary Suspension of Entry for Nationals of Countries of Particular Concern During Review Period, 82 Fed. Reg. 13209, March 6, 2017. ) 

The suit sought relief claiming violation of the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment, the equal protection component of the Fifth Amendment, the Immigration and Nationality Act, the Religious Freedom Restoration Act, the Refugee Act, and the Administrative Procedure Act. The relief granted was based upon the Establishment Clause claim.  The Court of Appeals found that plaintiffs had plausibly alleged that the second Executive Order's stated national security interest was provided in bad faith, as a pretext for its religious purpose. 

The decision opened with this paragraph: 

The question for this Court, distilled to its essential form, is whether the
Constitution, as the Supreme Court declared in Ex parte Milligan, 71 U.S. (4 Wall.) 2, 120 (1866), remains “a law for rulers and people, equally in war and in peace.” And if so, whether it protects Plaintiffs’ right to challenge an Executive Order that in text speaks with vague words of national security, but in context drips with religious intolerance, animus, and discrimination. Surely the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment yet stands as an untiring sentinel for the protection of one of our most cherished founding principles—that government shall not establish any religious orthodoxy, or favor or disfavor one religion over another. Congress granted the President broad power to deny entry to aliens, but that power is not absolute. It cannot go unchecked when, as here, the President wields it through an executive edict that stands to cause irreparable harm to individuals across this nation. Therefore, for the reasons that follow, we affirm in substantial part the district court’s issuance of a nationwide preliminary injunction as to Section 2(c) of the challenged Executive Order.

The decision quoted from the President's Statement on Preventing Muslim Immigration, posted during Trump's campaign, along with many other anti-Muslim statements made by the candidate.

At page 70 the Court of Appeals noted: 

The Government has repeatedly asked this Court to ignore evidence, circumscribe our own review, and blindly defer to executive action, all in the name of the Constitution’s separation of powers. We decline to do so, not only because it is the particular province of the judicial branch to say what the law is, but also because we would do a disservice to our constitutional structure were we to let its mere invocation silence the call for meaningful judicial review. The deference we give the coordinate branches is surely powerful, but even it must yield in certain circumstances, lest we abdicate our own duties to uphold the Constitution.

The government filed a petition for review with the Supreme Court on June 1, 2017. The respondents were given until June 12, 2017 to file a response. 

See the New York Times Appeals Court Will Not Reinstate Trump's Revised Travel Ban, May 25, 2017.