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Another unanimous decision: US Supreme Court rules in favor of Catholic Social Services

In the case of Sharonell Fulton, et al. v. City of Philadelphia, the dispute arose because the City of Philadelphia would not allow foster parents to partner with Catholic Social Services (CSS) in accepting placement of children because CSS would not work with gay couples.

CSS maintained that the City of Philadelphia had the case backwards — that the best interests of the children were served by placing the children in homes with a married couple, husband and wife. For that reason, CSS worked only with such married couples, in accordance with teachings of the Catholic Church that are thousands of years old.

The case began on May 16, 2018 in the Eastern District Court of Philadelpha. A group of foster parents, represented by the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty, sued the City of Philadelphia to overturn its refusal to allow placement through Catholic Social Services.

The case rose through the court ranks, reaching oral arguments before the Supreme Court on November 4, 2020.

Today, June 17, 2021, the Supreme Court issued a (rare) unanimous ruling in favor of the foster parents and Catholic Social Services and against the City of Philadelphia, written by Chief Justice Roberts.

From that opinion:

The religious views of CSS inform its work in this system. CSS believes that “marriage is a sacred bond between a man and a woman.” Because the agency understands the certification of prospective foster families to be an endorsement of their relationships, it will not certify unmarried couples — regardless of their sexual orientation — or same-sex married couples. CSS does not object to certifying gay or lesbian individuals as single foster parents or to placing gay and lesbian children. No same-sex couple has ever sought certification from CSS. If one did, CSS would direct the couple to one of the more than 20 other agencies in the City, all of which currently certify same-sex couples. For over 50 years, CSS successfully contracted with the City to provide foster care services while holding to these beliefs.

But things changed in 2018. After receiving a complaint about a different agency, a newspaper ran a story in which a spokesman for the Archdiocese of Philadelphia stated that CSS would not be able to consider prospective foster parents in same-sex marriages. The City Council called for an investigation, saying that the City had “laws in place to protect its people from discrimination that occurs under the guise of religious freedom.”

…The City later explained that the refusal of CSS to certify same-sex couples violated a non-discrimination provision in its contract with the City as well as the non-discrimination requirements of the citywide Fair Practices Ordinance. The City stated that it would not enter a full foster care contract with CSS in the future unless the agency agreed to certify same-sex couples.

The opinion written by Chief Justice Roberts concludes:

As Philadelphia acknowledges, CSS has “long been a point of light in the City’s foster-care system.” …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. 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.

In view of our conclusion that the actions of the City violate the Free Exercise Clause, we need not consider whether they also violate the Free Speech Clause.

The judgment of the United States Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit is reversed, and the case is remanded for further proceedings consistent with this opinion.