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U.S. Supreme Court Issues Several Monumental Decisions
As the 2023 term of the SCOTUS comes to an end, the Court has today and yesterday issued several highly significant, precedential decisions that likely pose big changes in many aspects of Americans’ lives in the future. Among them:
1. Biden v. Nebraska – Writing for the majority, Justice John Roberts Jr. struck down the Biden Administration’s effort to use the HEROES Act, to forgive $430 billion in student loans. The Court held that the President exceeded his authority.
2. Students for Fair Admissions, Inc. v. President and Fellows of Harvard College – Justice Roberts wrote that Harvard’s and University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill’s use of race as a factor in admissions, to promote affirmative action, violated the Fourteenth Amendment’s Equal Protection Clause of the Constitution.
3. 303 Creative LLC v. Elenis – Writing for the majority, Justice Neil Gorsuch upheld a Christian website designer’s right to refuse to create wedding websites for LGBTQ couples given the message conflicts with the website designer’s religious beliefs. Notably, unlike the Colorado cake baker case that preceded this decision on religious freedom grounds, this decision rested on freedom of speech under the First Amendment of the Constitution.
4. Groff v. DeJoy – Justice Samuel Alito delivered the Court’s unanimous opinion vacating a lower court’s dismissal of an Evangelical Christian postal worker’s complaint alleging the USPS failed to accommodate his religious conflict with working on the Sabbath. In its ruling, the Court upheld its 1977 decision in Transworld Airlines, while articulating a more rigorous standard that Title VII requires employers to accommodate sincerely held religious beliefs that conflict with work, unless it causes an “undue hardship” of more than a minimal burden for the employer.
While only the Groff decision involved a workplace issue under Title VII, all four of these decisions have the potential to impact the lower court’s interpretation of work-related laws in significant ways. For example, Justice Roberts went so far as to say the holding on affirmative action may well extend beyond school admissions, to the private workplace. This is a controversial position given that the Court’s ruling was based on Title VI, which subjects private institutions like Harvard to Constitutional protections because they receive government funds. Then again, employers who do business with the federal government and are therefore subject to Executive Order 11246, mandating affirmative action plans, or AAP, may open the door. And because the executive order itself was issued unilaterally by President Johnson, back in 1965, the Court’s ruling that President Biden exceeded his authority in forgiving student loans without Congress’ involvement, may open the door to challenges to mandatory AAPs and similar orders.
As might be expected in today’s political climate, these decisions are being met with vitriolic rhetoric from all sides. Some accuse the SCOTUS of taking the country back in time, reversing years of progress achieved through affirmative action. Others claim that race-based admissions and similar decisions, are themselves racist, a sort of “two wrongs don’t make a right” theory. Many in the LGBTQ+ community and its supporters, accuse the court of permitting the website designer to discriminate under the auspices of religion and/or free speech. Those on the other side point out that the website designer in that case does not refuse to work for members of the LGBTQ+ community, and only objected to being forced to include specific “speech” in a website the designer found objectionable.
One thing is clear: the current makeup of the Court is more inclined to consider religion in its decisions than the SCOTUS of the past (hence the Dobbs decision reversing Roe v. Wade). What remains to be seen is the impact of these decisions on any multitude of future issues in America.
So as not to stray from our readers’ expectations based on our practice representing employers in workplace law, we will confine future comments on these important decisions to their impact on employers. Watch for more detailed analysis and interpretations of these decisions, in future Wessels Sherman Client Alert newsletters.
Questions? Contact James Sherman at 952-746-1700 or by email
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