Ruling is latest victory for religious liberty advocates
The Supreme Court ruled on Thursday that a Catholic agency for matching children with foster parents in Philadelphia had its rights to free expression and exercise of religious liberties when the state ordered it to serve same-sex couples or lose its licence.
The court’s nine justices all found in favour of the agency, Catholic Social Services (CSS), which sued the city of Philadelphia after officials said they would end referrals of potential foster children to the agency, and would end the city’s contract with CSS in the future.
Chief Justice John Roberts delivered a majority opinion joined by five other justices, while Justices Samuel Alito, Clarence Thomas, and Neil Gorsuch called on the Court to take an even stronger stand in favour of religious liberties.
“The refusal of Philadelphia to contract with CSS for the provision of foster care services unless the agency agrees to certify same-sex couples as foster parents cannot survive strict scrutiny and violates the Free Exercise Clause of the First Amendment. The Court does not consider whether the City’s actions also violate the Free Speech Clause,” the Court’s decision read.
Attorneys for the city of Philadelphia pushed the case to the Supreme Court after winning a victory at the federal appeals level when a panel of judges ruled unanimously against CSS.
City officials argued, represented by former Obama administration Deputy Solicitor General Neal Katyal, that the agency was not targeted for its religious beliefs and could not function as a foster care agency within the city’s nondiscrimination statutes.
In response, the justices noted in the majority opinion that the city had made previous exceptions to its nondiscrimination policies when considering contractors, and gave no “compelling reason” why CSS could not be granted an exception beyond fear of legal liability over CSS’s practices.
“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,” wrote the justices in the majority opinion.
The decision is the latest victory at the nation’s highest court for advocates of private businesses’ and other entities’ rights to operate under their own religious guidelines and deny service to gay people or other members of the LGBT+ community.
In 2018, the Supreme Court delivered a similar ruling when it found in favour of a baker who refused to bake a wedding cake for a same-sex couple.