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Court protects Catholic ministries from federal abortion mandate: Judge blocks mandate forcing employers to accommodate employee decisions to have abortions

by | Jun 19, 2024

By Becket Law

WASHINGTON – A federal court in Louisiana protected a group of Catholic ministries Monday from being forced to support employee abortions against their religious beliefs. In United States Conference of Catholic Bishops v. EEOC, religious groups challenged a federal agency which had hijacked a law protecting expecting mothers and their unborn children to force employers nationwide to accommodate abortion. The court’s ruling protects the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) and several other Catholic ministries from the mandate while the case is ongoing.

Congress passed the Pregnant Workers Fairness Act in 2022 to protect expecting mothers in the workforce and their unborn babies. The law makes it illegal for employers to deny accommodations like extra restroom breaks and modified work schedules to women who have physical limitations brought on by pregnancy or childbirth.

Throughout the legislative process, the USCCB—an organization of Catholic bishops who are the senior religious leadership of the Catholic Church in the United States—supported the PWFA’s passage because of the law’s admirable and uncontroversial purpose. But despite the PWFA’s clear text, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC)—the federal agency enforcing the law—mandated that employers nationwide must accommodate abortions, including by knowingly allowing their employees to take paid leave to have an abortion and by removing life-affirming workplace policies discouraging abortion.

“The EEOC twisted a law protecting expecting mothers and their babies and co-opted the workplaces of over 130 million Americans to support abortion,” said Laura Wolk Slavis, counsel at Becket. “That is an abuse of power—no one should have to choose between their conscience and protecting pregnant women.”

With the help of Becket, a group of Catholic ministries including the USCCB filed a lawsuit in May 2024 against the abortion-accommodation mandate. The lawsuit details how the EEOC’s actions follow a lengthy history of federal agencies misusing their authority against religious objectors. In one example, for nearly 15 years, federal agencies attempted to impose a mandate requiring employers to provide insurance coverage for contraceptives and abortion pills—forcing groups like the Little Sisters of the Poor, a Catholic order of nuns that run homes for the elderly poor, to seek judicial protection.

The court’s ruling Monday temporarily stops federal agencies from imposing yet another abortion-related mandate on the USCCB and several other Catholic ministries. “‘Abortion’ is a term that is readily understood by everyone,” the court explained. “If Congress had intended to mandate that employers accommodate elective abortions under the PWFA, it would have spoken clearly when enacting the statute, particularly given the enormous social, religious, and political importance of the abortion issue in our nation.”

But to the contrary, the court noted, the legislative record “unambiguously confirms that Congress specifically did not intend for the PWFA to require employers to accommodate abortion.” Instead of faithfully applying the law passed by Congress, the court said, EEOC’s “semantic gymnastics” and “disingenuous” legal arguments were a “textbook case of a federal administrative agency exceeding its statutory authority[.]”

“Banning employers nationwide from affirming life is unacceptable and unlawful,” said Wolk Slavis. “This ruling is an important step in ensuring that American workplaces can be free to continue serving their communities consistent with their beliefs.”

The states of Louisiana and Mississippi had filed a parallel lawsuit before the same court, and employers in those states were also protected by the ruling. The federal government has 60 days to appeal the decision.