The U.S. Supreme Court ruled unanimously Thursday in favor of a Catholic agency receiving government funding that argued having to work with same-sex foster parents violated their “religious freedom,” a major but narrow ruling that says Philadelphia’s anti-discrimination laws unfairly burdened the religious agency’s First Amendment rights.
Catholic Social Services, a nonprofit organization that contracted with the city of Philadelphia and its foster care system, sued the city in 2018 after Philadelphia stopped sending the agency foster children upon discovering the agency would refuse to work with married LGBTQ couples seeking to be foster parents, though it had not yet rejected any applications.
Philadelphia argued CSS violated the city’s anti-discrimination laws by discriminating against the same-sex couples, while the Catholic agency argued working with LGBTQ foster parents went against their religious beliefs, taking the case to the Supreme Court after the district and appeals courts ruled in Philadelphia’s favor.
The Supreme Court ruled that Philadelphia’s refusal to contract with CSS violated the agency’s First Amendment rights to exercise their religious beliefs, issuing a ruling narrowly based on Philadelphia’s particular laws and ordinances and declining to issue a more sweeping one that could have been applied more generally to other cities.
The city alleged that CSS could not discriminate on the basis of sexual orientation because foster care agencies are “public accommodations” and city ordinances prohibit “interfering with the public accommodations opportunities of an individual based on sexual orientation,” but the court struck down that idea, saying foster care agencies are “not readily accessible to the public” and thus not public accommodations.
Philadelphia’s interests in blocking CSS from receiving funding and not making an exception—as are allowed under the city’s laws—are “insufficient,” Chief Justice John Roberts wrote in his opinion for the court, ruling the city’s interest in “the equal treatment of prospective foster parents and foster children,” though a “weighty one,” “cannot justify denying CSS an exception for its religious exercise.”
“CSS seeks only an accommodation that will allow it to continue serving the children of Philadelphia in a manner consistent with its religious beliefs; it does not seek to impose those beliefs on anyone else,” Roberts wrote in his opinion for the court. “The refusal of Philadelphia to contract with CSS for the provision of foster care services unless it agrees to certify same-sex couples as foster parents cannot survive strict scrutiny, and violates the First Amendment.”
The American Civil Liberties Union, which defended Philadelphia in the case, said Thursday it was “disappointed in the specific result in this case,” but emphasized the “very narrow” nature of the Supreme Court’s ruling. “What’s important is that the court did NOT recognize a license to discriminate based on religious beliefs. State and local governments may continue to enforce laws protecting LGBTQ people and others from discrimination,” the organization noted in a statement on Twitter.
The Supreme Court’s ruling comes after the court previously upheld same-sex adoption in 2016, and after the court issued several other narrowly-tailored rulings in favor of religious liberty in recent years, including ruling in favor of a Colorado baker who refused to make wedding cakes for same-sex couples and Hobby Lobby’s refusal to provide health insurance coverage for contraception. Though the court’s decision Thursday was specifically focused on Philadelphia’s ordinances, the issue of LGBTQ discrimination in foster care and adoption—as well as discrimination against other groups that may go against an agency’s religious beliefs, such as single parents and those of other faiths—is a national issue. The Family Equality Council reports 11 states explicitly allow foster care agencies to refuse services to those who go against their religious beliefs, and 10 states who allow the same for adoption agencies. Past legal challenges against discrimination in adoption and foster care have been more successful than Philadelphia’s case: Nebraska’s law allowing anti-LGBTQ discrimination in foster care, for instance, was struck down in 2015.
While CSS responded to Philadelphia revoking its contract by suing the city, the other religious agency who the city cut ties with, Bethany Christian Services, instead changed its policy in Philadelphia to allow same-sex couples and had its government funding restored. In contrast to other agencies that deny services to LGBTQ couples, the agency then extended that policy to all of its branches nationwide in March of this year.
Two foster agencies in Philly won’t place kids with LGBTQ people (Philadelphia Inquirer)