Washington — The Supreme Court on Thursday sided with a Catholic foster care agency that was cut off by the city of Philadelphia from receiving foster care referrals because it refused to work with same-sex couples looking to serve as foster parents because of the agency’s religious beliefs about marriage.
The high court unanimously ruled the city was wrong to end its foster care contract with the agency, Catholic Social Services. Chief Justice John Roberts, writing for six of the justices, said the city’s refusal to contract with the foster care agency unless it agreed to certify same-sex couples as foster parents violated the First Amendment. The dispute was the latest to come before the justices that pitted religious freedom against LGBTQ rights.
Roberts said that “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.”
“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,” he said. “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 case before the court began in 2018, when the city learned from a Philadelphia Inquirer reporter that two of the 30 agencies it contracted with to provide foster care services — Catholic Social Services, part of the Archdiocese of Philadelphia, and Bethany Christian Services — had policies against certifying married same-sex couples as foster parents, citing religious objections to gay marriage.
While Bethany Christian Services changed its rule, Catholic Social Services left its policy in place. Philadelphia officials then halted referrals of foster children to Catholic Social Services, arguing the agency violated a decades-old city ordinance prohibiting discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation.
In response to the freeze, the foster care agency and a group of foster parents filed suit, arguing the move by Philadelphia officials violated their First Amendment rights of freedom of religion and speech. The 3rd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled in favor of the city and found it neutrally applied its nondiscrimination policy. Catholic Social Services, the appeals court said, was not entitled to an exemption from the city’s law.
Catholic Social Services appealed the decision to the Supreme Court, claiming the city targeted it based on hostility to its religious beliefs and warning a ruling from the high court against it would force Catholic Social Services and other religious foster care and adoption agencies to close their doors. The Trump administration backed the Catholic foster care agency.
Held remotely by telephone the day after the presidential election, arguments were the first in a major dispute heard by Justice Amy Coney Barrett, who replaced the late Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg in late October.
With the Supreme Court’s rightward shift during former President Donald Trump’s term, the justices seem more poised to provide broader protections for religious rights and exemptions to government anti-discrimination policies. In its last term, the high court in three different argued cases ruled in favor of religious rights, siding in each with religious institutions.