The United States Supreme Court has embraced religious rights over LGBTQ rights by ruling in favour of a Catholic Church-affiliated agency that sued after Philadelphia refused to place children for foster care with the organisation because it barred same-sex couples from applying to become foster parents.
The 9-0 ruling on Thursday, written by conservative Chief Justice John Roberts, was a victory for Catholic Social Services, part of the Archdiocese of Philadelphia. The court said the city’s refusal to use the Catholic agency for foster care services unless it agreed to certify same-sex couples violates the US Constitution’s First Amendment guarantee of the free exercise of religion.
Catholic Social Services (CSS) argued that Philadelphia had penalised it for its religious views and for following church teachings on marriage. The court did not rule on some of the broader legal questions raised by religious rights advocates.
“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,” Roberts wrote in the ruling.
Although the court ruled in favour of CSS, the Americans Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) noted that the court did not establish a precedent for religious groups to dismiss non-discrimination laws.
“We are relieved that the court did not recognize a license to discriminate based on religious beliefs,” Leslie Cooper, deputy director of the ACLU LGBTQ & HIV Project, said in a statement.
“Opponents of LGBTQ equality have been seeking to undo hard-won non-discrimination protections by asking the court to establish a constitutional right to opt out of such laws when discrimination is motivated by religious beliefs,” Cooper said.
The case, argued before the court in November, pitted LGBTQ rights against religious rights. It was one of the first main cases that former President Donald Trump’s third appointee to the court, Amy Coney Barrett, participated in after being confirmed by the US Senate in October.
The Philadelphia-based 3rd US Circuit Court of Appeals in 2019 ruled against Catholic Social Services, saying it had not shown that Philadelphia had treated it differently because of its religious affiliation. US District Judge Petrese Tucker in Philadelphia in 2018 also ruled against the organisation, finding that the city’s anti-discrimination measures were applied uniformly, meaning the group’s religious rights were not violated and it was not entitled to an exemption.
Catholic Social Services, which has helped provide foster care services for more than a century, had said it would be compelled to close its foster care operations if it was unable to participate in Philadelphia’s programme.
Philadelphia in 2018 suspended foster care referrals to Catholic Social Services, which then sued alongside three foster parents.
Eleven of the 50 states currently allow private agencies to refuse to place children with same-sex couples, according to the Movement Advancement Project, a group backing gay rights.
Philadelphia in 2018 suspended foster care referrals to Catholic Social Services after a newspaper report about the organisation’s policy of turning away same-sex couples seeking to serve as foster parents. The organisation had a contract with the city for the placement of foster children. It said the city’s action meant that available foster homes were sitting empty amid a foster care crisis in the city of about 1.5 million people.
It backed gay rights in a series of landmark rulings, including a 2015 decision legalising same-sex marriage nationwide and a June 2020 ruling that a federal law barring workplace discrimination protects gay and transgender employees.
The court also bolstered religious rights in several decisions, including a 2014 ruling that allowed owners of businesses to raise religious objections against the government.