Supreme Court Rules in Favor of Foster Care Agency in a Religious Freedom Case

The United States Supreme Court unanimously ruled in Fulton v. Philadelphia that the city of Philadelphia violated the First Amendment when it refused to with with a Catholic social services agency that wouldn’t place foster kids with same-sex couples.

In an opinion written by Chief Justice John Roberts Jr., the court ruled that Philadelphia had placed a large, unnecessary burden on Catholic Social Services’ religious exercise rights by forcing the agency to choose between upholding its contract with the city or going against its religious beliefs and certifying same-sex couples as foster parents.

The decision is seen as a win for conservative religiously affiliated foster care services. After the ruling, Lifeline Children’ Services president Herbie Newell shared his excitement over the court’s decision.

“We are pleased that the Supreme Court has overwhelmingly affirmed the First Amendment religious liberty rights of faith-based adoption ministries, like Lifeline Children’s Services, to carry out our mission of finding families for children in need, according to the beliefs that have defined us since our inception. If the state pushes out religious organizations who serve the greater society and the most vulnerable, this will result in greater inequality and a steeper burden for the state. The Biblical beliefs that compel our organization, and the families that partner with us to adopt kids, are beliefs that should be respected by the government. The Christian community in America is eager and ready to fulfill our calling to serve the vulnerable and adopt children; I’m glad the Supreme Court has clearly affirmed our contribution in this needed work.”

The court held that nondiscrimination policies that bar outside agencies who have exemptions on the basis of sexual orientation from doing business with the city have to be “generally applicable,” and Philadelphia’s policies against CSS were not. However, the court did reject a request made by CSS to adopt a more sweeping decision that would make it harder for local governments to defend nondiscrimination policies against religious-based challenges in the future.

Organizations such as the Human Rights Campaign are choosing to see the decision as a small win, as the ruling affirms that with the correct applicable language, foster care agencies cannot discriminate against same-sex couples.

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“Though today’s decision is not a complete victory, it does not negate the fact that every qualified family is valid and worthy—children deserve a loving, caring, committed home,” said Alphonso David, Human Rights Campaign President. “We celebrate the LGBTQ families who are dedicated to providing homes to the thousands of children in the child welfare system. Yet we know there is more work that must be done to ensure that the best interest of the child is always prioritized, including through family reunification.”

This was the latest case to come before the court regarding religious freedom. In 2018, the landmark case of Masterpiece Cakeshop v. Colorado Civil Rights Commission, the court ruled in favor of a baker who refused to make wedding ckaes for same-sex couples on religious grounds, but did so in a specific way that would not set a precedent for future fights over religious freedom. 

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