The U.S. Supreme Court on Thursday handed the faith-based community a major victory, unanimously ruling that the city of Philadelphia violated the First Amendment when it tried forcing a Catholic foster care agency to place children in same-sex homes.
The justices, in a 9-0 decision, sided with Catholic Social Services, which filed suit after the city terminated a foster care contract due to the agency's policy of not placing children in the homes of LGBT couples. Philadelphia pointed to a city law prohibiting contractors from discriminating on the basis of sexual orientation.
Catholic Social Services lost at the district court and the appeals court levels before taking its case to the Supreme Court.
On Thursday, the court's conservative and liberal blocs united in ruling that the city violated the religious liberty rights of Catholic Social Services under the First Amendment.
Chief Justice John Roberts wrote the opinion of the court, which was joined by five other justices. Three members of the court's conservative bloc filed concurring opinions, agreeing with the judgment but saying they would have gone even further in protecting the religious liberty rights of the agency. There were no dissenting opinions.
The city's actions, Roberts wrote, "violate the Free Exercise Clause" of the First Amendment.
"It is plain 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," Roberts wrote.
The Catholic agency, he wrote, has "long been a point of light in the City's foster-care system."
"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 continued. "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 … violates the First Amendment."
Significantly, he wrote, "no same-sex couple has ever sought" to adopt through the Catholic charity.
"If one did, CSS would direct the couple to one of the more than 20 other agencies in the City, all of which currently certify same-sex couples," Roberts wrote. "For over 50 years, CSS successfully contracted with the City to provide foster care services while holding to these beliefs."
Justices Brett Kavanaugh, Amy Coney Barrett, Sonia Sotomayor, Elena Kagan, and Stephen G. Breyer joined Roberts' opinion. Justices Samuel Alito and Neil Gorsuch each issued concurring opinions saying they would have gone further and overturned a 1990 decision, Employment Division, Department of Human Resources of Oregon v. Smith. Justice Clarence joined the concurring decisions.
In that 1990 case, the court held that a state could deny unemployment benefits to a worker fired for using illegal drugs for religious purposes. The 1990 case has been cited by lower courts to restrict religious liberty. The city of Philadelphia, for example, urged the high court not to overturn the decision.
"Smith committed a constitutional error. Only we can fix it," Gorsuch wrote. "Dodging the question today guarantees it will recur tomorrow. These cases will keep coming until the Court musters the fortitude to supply an answer. Respectfully, it should have done so today."
The Becket Fund for Religious Liberty represented the agency.
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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.