The Supreme Court delivered a major victory for religious liberty this week when it sided with a Catholic foster care agency over the city of Philadelphia, legal experts say.
The high court also signaled it may be ready to overturn a 1990 case that has been used to limit religious liberty.
The justices, in a unanimous 9-0 decision, ruled that the city of Philadelphia violated the Free Exercise Clause of the First Amendment when it tried forcing Catholic Social Services to place children in same-sex homes. “It is plain,” Chief Justice John Roberts wrote for the court, “that the City’s actions have burdened CSS’s religious exercise by putting it to the choice of curtailing its mission or approving relationships inconsistent with its beliefs.”
Luke Goodrich, an attorney for the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty, said the unanimous composition of the ruling “sends a powerful message that religious Americans are free to serve.”
“They don’t have to change their basic beliefs about marriage and family in order to join hands across faith lines and serve the neediest in society,” Goodrich tweeted.
The court’s ruling, he said, is not “narrow” as some claim.
“This is a profound victory for religious freedom,” Goodrich wrote. “It provides strong, UNANIMOUS protection for people of faith to serve the needy. And it forecasts even stronger protections in the years to come.”
1. It is UNANIMOUS. This sends a powerful message that religious Americans are free to serve. They don’t have to change their basic beliefs about marriage and family in order to join hands across faith lines and serve the neediest in society. pic.twitter.com/W92WcqFZVT— Luke Goodrich (@LukeWGoodrich) June 17, 2021
Significantly, a majority of the justices questioned the court’s 1990 decision in Employment Division v. Smith that narrowed the scope of religious liberty. In that case, the justices held that a law is constitutional under the Free Exercise Clause if it is neutral and if there is a legitimate government interest in passing the law.
“There are at least 5 votes, likely 6, to overrule it,” Goodrich wrote. “It’s only a matter of time before the Court restores even stronger protections for religious freedom.”
3. It adopts a rigorous test even under Smith. It says if a law lets the government make any case-by-case “exceptions,” even theoretically--which many laws do--the law is subject to strict scrutiny. This means gov't will have far less flexibility to restrict religious practices. pic.twitter.com/7zhQPrnTzZ— Luke Goodrich (@LukeWGoodrich) June 17, 2021
Kelly Shackelford, president and CEO of First Liberty Institute, called the ruling a “tremendous victory for religious liberty.”
“The Court ensured that religious adoption providers can continue their centuries-old work serving families and children without suffering government discrimination because they believe that the best home for a child includes a mother and father,” Shackelford said.
Kristen Waggoner, general counsel of Alliance Defending Freedom, said the decision means the “government can’t single out people of certain beliefs to punish, sideline, or discriminate against them.”
Dan McLaughlin, a senior writer at National Review, said the court’s 1990 Smith decision “now stands on thin ice.”
“Not only is [Thursday’s ruling] a victory for the free exercise of religion in the face of an implacably hostile government,” McLaughlin wrote. “but it also signals that the Court may soon be ready to shift its jurisprudence considerably further in favor of claims of religious liberty.”
Photo courtesy: Bill Mason/Unsplash
Michael Foust has covered the intersection of faith and news for 20 years. His stories have appeared in Baptist Press, Christianity Today, The Christian Post, the Leaf-Chronicle, the Toronto Star and the Knoxville News-Sentinel.