The Trump Department of Justice has sided with a Catholic foster care agency in a major religious liberty case that could resolve the conflict between governments and faith-based adoption agencies that won’t place children in same-sex homes due to religious beliefs.
The case began in 2018 when the Philadelphia Inquirer published a story saying Catholic Social Services – which had a foster care contract with the city – does not place children in same-sex homes. The city subsequently terminated the contract, asserting the agency’s policy violated a city law prohibiting contractors from discriminating on the basis of sexual orientation.
Catholic Social Services then sued. Although lower courts ruled against the agency, the U.S. Supreme Court took up the case and is expected to hear oral arguments this fall.
The Justice Department, in a brief to the high court this month, said Philadelphia has “displayed hostility toward religion” and violated the Free Exercise Clause of the First Amendment.
Further, the city authorizes some exemptions to its policy it doesn’t offer to religious organizations, the brief says.
“In short, the City’s actions and words reflected ‘animosity to religion or distrust of its practices,’” the Justice Department brief says.
Catholic Social Services “adheres to the belief that marriage is the union of a man and a woman.” Because of that, it won’t place children in same-sex homes or unmarried opposite-sex homes.
Still, Catholic Social Services says it is willing to refer same-sex couples to other agencies.
“The City singled out religious organizations for investigation; suggested that religious beliefs are merely a pretext for discrimination; imposed unnecessarily severe restrictions on Catholic Social Services’ participation in the foster-care program; and tried to persuade Catholic Social Services that its understanding of Catholic doctrine was outmoded and inconsistent with the views of Pope Francis, as the City understood them,” the Justice Department brief says.
Cynthia Figueroa, the then-commissioner of Philadelphia’s Department of Human Services, reportedly told Catholic Social Services it “should be following ‘the teachings of Pope Francis’ as she understood them,” the brief says. She also allegedly told Catholic officials that “times have changed, attitudes have changed, science has changed,” the brief says.
“The City has thus unconstitutionally ‘passe[d] judgment upon or presuppose[d] the illegitimacy of religious beliefs and practices,’” the brief says, quoting the 2018 Supreme Court decision in Masterpiece Cakeshop v. Colorado Civil Rights Commission.
The city’s action, the brief says, “burdened Catholic Social Services’ exercise of religion in a manner that the Free Exercise Clause prohibits.”
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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.