On June 17, the Supreme Court ruled in a 9 to 0 decision that the Catholic Social Services (CSS) in the state of Pennsylvania has the right to refuse placing children with same-sex couples on religious grounds. The case, Fulton v. City of Philadelphia, examined the foster care agency’s rights in the context of Philadelphia’s non-discrimination policy against LGBTQ couples.
In March 2018, The Philadelphia Inquirer published a story about a same-sex couple that was refused a foster child by a Christian charity named Bethany Christian Services. A spokesman for an organization with similar practices, the Catholic Social Services (CSS) run by the Archdiocese of Philadelphia, said that CSS was not interested in working with LGBTQ people.
“The Catholic Church does not endorse same-sex unions, based upon deeply held religious beliefs and principles. As such, CSS would not be able to consider foster care placement within the context of a same-sex union,” the spokesperson said. Reporters contacted Philadelphia’s Department of Human Services (DHS) for a comment.
DHS spokeswoman Heather Keafer said that the positions of the two groups were “deeply concerning.” The city requested that CSS change its policy regarding same-sex couples, which the catholic agency declined. Eventually, officials stopped referring children to the agency.
CSS and two of its clients, Toni Simms-Busch and Sharonell Fulton, sued the city, arguing that they were excluded from Philadelphia’s anti-discrimination rules due to their religious beliefs. The Supreme court ruled that Philadelphia violated the First Amendment rights of CSS when it refused to contract with the agency.
“The City’s actions burdened CSS’s religious exercise by forcing it either to curtail its mission or to certify same-sex couples as foster parents in violation of its religious beliefs… The refusal of Philadelphia to contract with CSS for the provision of foster care services unless CSS agrees to certify same-sex couples as foster parents violates the Free Exercise Clause of the First Amendment,” Supreme Court Chief Justice John Roberts wrote in the opinion.
Justice Samuel Alito stated that the city of Philadelphia’s actions amounted to “an ultimatum to an arm of the Catholic Church,” which asked the Church to either engage in conduct viewed as contradictory to their beliefs on marriage or abandon their mission of “providing for the care of orphaned and abandoned children,” a practice dating back to the “earliest days of the Church.”
The case drew the attention of the Trump administration, which backed the CSS lawsuit. The Department of Justice (DoJ) even filed an amicus brief in June 2020 arguing that “Philadelphia has impermissibly discriminated against religious exercise… Philadelphia’s actions also reflect unconstitutional hostility toward Catholic Social Services’ religious beliefs.”
In the lawsuit, CSS was represented by the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty. In a statement, Becket Senior Counsel Lori Windham said that the Supreme Court ruling protects foster moms and the two century old religious ministry that supports them. “Taking care of children, especially children who have been neglected and abused, is a universal value that spans all ideological divides,” Windham said.
In a tweet, former Vice President Mike Pence called the decision “a Victory for Catholic Social Services, Foster Care and for the Religious Freedom for Every American.” In contrast, Democrat Representative Pramila Jayapal called the Supreme Court judgment “disappointing.”
“This case isn’t about religious freedom — it’s about discrimination against LGBTQ+ families who want to give foster children a loving home. Congress must respond by immediately passing the Equality Act,” Jayapal said in a tweet.
The Equality Act, which passed the House in February, seeks to amend the Civil Rights Act of 1964 with the stated aim of banning discrimination based on gender identity and sexual orientation. However, the Heritage Foundation warned that the Equality Act would allow the government to “dictate how Americans think and act regarding gender and sex.” The organization wrote that the bill “weaponizes civil rights law to punish those who do not hold the ‘correct’ beliefs.”