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Supreme Court Rules In Favor of Catholic Charity

October 28th, 2021

A Catholic charity is allowed to discriminate against same-sex couples in its placement of foster children.
A Catholic charity is allowed to discriminate against same-sex couples in its placement of foster children.

The United States Supreme Court recently held that the City of Philadelphia went too far in applying its anti-discrimination law to a Catholic charity after it declined to permit same-sex parents to adopt foster children. The justices in this case noted that the Constitution permits a religious freedom exception to anti-discrimination laws. Importantly, the case marked the first landmark decision heard by Justice Barrett, who was controversially appointed by President Trump in 2020. The court’s ruling was unanimous, but the decision was so narrow that it is unlikely to have a widespread impact.

Pertinent Supreme Court Precedent

Since the Supreme Court ruled in favor of same-sex marriage in the 2015 Obergefell decision, countless lawsuits have been initiated by people who claim that their religious beliefs do not permit them to provide services for same-sex weddings. In the even earlier 1990 Smith ruling, the Supreme Court ruled that religious beliefs cannot exempt someone from local, state, or federal laws, including those that prohibit discrimination. Overruling this decision would make it substantially easier for businesses to argue in favor of a religious exemption from laws that prohibit discrimination related to sexual orientation.

In 2019, the Supreme Court considered the Masterpiece Cakeshop case, which involved a cake baker who argued that being forced to make wedding cakes for gay couples violated his religious freedom as well as the right of free expression. The Court in this case ruled in favor of the baker, but on very narrow grounds that did not necessarily open the door to religious beliefs overriding anti-discrimination laws.

How the Catholic Charity Case Arose

In 2018, the City of Philadelphia required that all of its contractors agree not to act in a discriminatory manner regarding the placement of children with foster parents, including same-sex couples. However, the Catholic charity refused to place children with foster parents in same-sex relationships, which resulted in Philadelphia cancelling its contract with the Catholic charity. As a result, the charity initiated legal action on the basis that supporting same-sex couples as foster parents violated its religious teachings. The City of Philadelphia responded that the charity could both express and practice its religious views but had no say in the terms of municipal contracts. The City of Philadelphia also argued that instead of being punished for its views, the charity was permitted to retain city contracts to perform services for foster children. 

Lower courts found that the city acted legally in the enforcement of its non-discrimination laws, and the Third Circuit Court of Appeals affirmed that religious beliefs do not permit the violation of “general” civil rights laws.

The Supreme Court’s Decision

In arriving at its decision, Justice Roberts noted that the refusal of the City of Philadelphia to contract with child support services unless the agency certifies same-sex couples as foster parents is a violation of the First Amendment’s free exercise clause. The Court found that the City of Philadelphia’s actions burdened the Catholic charity’s free exercise of religion, the Philadelphia law was not neutral or generally applicable, and the law in question did not fall within public accommodations laws.

However, the Supreme Court rejected Catholic Social Service’s argument that religious objections should more generally overcome anti-discrimination laws. In so doing, the Court left the Smith decision intact, once again opting not to allow religious beliefs to trump anti-discrimination laws. Newly appointed Justice Barrett wrote a concurring opinion stating that the textual and structural arguments of the case are compelling and that many issues must be worked through if Smith is to be overruled in the future.

Response to the Decision

Understandably, the decision has received a variety of responses. A spokesperson for the American Civil Liberties Union has commented that the court did not recognize a license to discriminate over religious beliefs and emphasized the opinion’s narrow holding. Other LGBTQ+ advocacy groups have expressed disappointment over the ruling. Meanwhile, a lawyer on behalf of the organization that represented the Catholic charity noted that the decision was a “common-sense” decision. 

The Goal of the Universal Life Church’s Blog 

Each week, the Universal Life Church’s blog examines the most noticeable cases addressing LGBTQ+ rights. While these cases are often complex, our blog aims to describe issues in a way that can be easily understood and fairly examines both sides.

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