The dispute arose because Catholic Social Services – which received funds from taxpayers – were unwilling to work with LGBTQ couples as foster parents due to religious objections to same-sex marriage. The policy was brought to the city’s attention in 2018 after inquiries from a local newspaper, and shortly after the government froze the contract. The group, led by longtime foster parent Sharonell Fulton who has taken in more than 40 children over the age of 25, has filed a complaint.
The question in court was whether Philadelphia could require hospitality agencies to comply with its non-discrimination law.
Chief Justice John Roberts wrote the majority opinion of six of the nine judges. Judges Clarence Thomas, Samuel Alito and Neil Gorsuch joined in the result, but did not agree with the reasoning of the majority – and were disappointed with the result.
“The court issued a suspicion of a ruling that leaves religious freedom in a confused and vulnerable state,” Alito wrote. “Those who rely on this Court to defend the First Amendment have every right to be disappointed, as am I.”
Alito would have gone much further by setting aside a decades-old precedent and making it much more difficult for the government to enforce laws that weigh on the religious beliefs of some people.
They said they would have overturned a 1990 case that said if a legal requirement applied equally to everyone, even if it weighed on religious practice, it was constitutional as long as the government had a rational basis for it. law.
“Today’s ruling is another victory for religious groups, but not the most important they were seeking,” said Steve Vladeck, CNN Supreme Court analyst and law school professor at the University of Texas.
“The court’s three most conservative judges wanted to overturn three decades of precedent and subject virtually all government regulations that even incidentally impact religious practice to the most demanding judicial scrutiny. But Chief Justice Roberts and Justices Kavanaugh and Barrett seemed unwilling, or at least not yet. ready, to make such a decision – resting the decision on narrower grounds, “he added.” It may also explain why none of the three more progressive judges expressed their dissent – for fear that they don’t encourage the three middle judges to go any further. “
Roberts, joined by court liberals as well as Justices Brett Kavanaugh and Amy Coney Barrett, focused on the fact that Philadelphia had failed to show a good reason why the contract should be frozen and the religious rights of the agency should be encumbered. He noted that there were other agencies available to work with gay placements.
“It is clear that the actions of the City weighed on the CSS [Catholic Social Services’] religious exercise by making him the choice to restrict his mission or to approve relations incompatible with his beliefs “, he wrote. He added that the agency” seeks only an accommodation which will allow him to continue to serve the children of Philadelphia in a manner consistent with her religious beliefs; he’s not trying to force those beliefs on someone else. ”
The city, he noted, had allowed other exemptions based on marital status or disability, but not an exemption to the agency for its religious beliefs.
Philadelphia City attorney Diana Cortes said Thursday she was disappointed with the decision, calling it “difficult and disappointing.”
“With today’s ruling, the court usurped the City’s judgment that a non-discrimination policy is in the best interests of the children in its care, with worrying consequences for other programs and government services, ”Cortes said. At the same time, the city welcomes the fact that the Supreme Court has not, as the plaintiffs demanded, radically changed existing constitutional law to adopt a standard that would force court-ordered religious exemptions from civic obligations in all the domains.”
Catholic Social Services is a non-profit, religious organization affiliated with the Archdiocese of Philadelphia that provides foster care services in the city. It is one of the 30 foster care agencies that has a contract with the city which is renewed every year. When a child in need of a foster family enters the city’s custody, the child is referred, by social services, to one of the family placement agencies. This agency chooses the appropriate foster parent for the child. The contract includes language prohibiting agencies from discriminating on the basis of race, color, religion or natural origin in accordance with the city’s fair practices ordinances.
A federal appeals court ruled in favor of the city, ruling that the policy is “neutral, generally applicable law, and the religious views of the [Catholic Social Services] does not entitle him to an exception to this policy. The court ruled that the host agency “had failed to convincingly demonstrate that the City had targeted him for his religious beliefs, or was motivated by ill will against his religion, rather than by sincere opposition to discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation.
The court said the city had acted in “good faith” in its efforts to enforce its anti-discrimination laws.
The Catholic charity, represented by conservative fund Becket, said it has served the city for over 100 years and no same-sex couple has applied to the family placement certification agency for Home.
In court, Lori Windham told judges the agency was making a “modest” request that was to allow various religious agencies to serve the city and obtain an exemption from the city’s Fair Practices Ordinance. Instead, she said, the city was trying to tell a private religious ministry “how to handle its internal affairs and trying to coerce it into making statements contrary to its religious beliefs as a condition of continuing to participate in the ministry. religious exercise they conducted in Philadelphia for two centuries.
She urged the court to reconsider a 1990 case, Employment Division v. Smith, a judicial precedent that a law that obstructs the exercise of religion is not subject to scrutiny by the court as long as it applies equally to everyone.
Additionally, Windham said Philadelphia violated free speech guarantees by forcing it to deliver the government’s “preferred message on marriage” and demonstrating hostility to its religious beliefs.
Ahead of the election, the Trump administration sided with the foster care agency and argued that the city had violated the agency’s rights and shown hostility to its beliefs.
Neal Katyal, an attorney for the city, said that although the organization continues to help foster children through other government contracts and may support foster parents privately, it does not could not contract with the government while circumventing the city’s non-discrimination requirement. He said neither the district court nor the appeals court found the agency to be targeted because of its religious beliefs.
Lawyers for the ACLU, which is involved in the case, said it could have “profound consequences” for the more than 400,000 children in care across the country.
This story has been updated with additional details.