By Roger Alford
WASHINGTON – The U.S. Supreme Court ruled Thursday that the city of Philadelphia violated the First Amendment rights of a foster care agency that refused to place children in homes with same-sex couples.
The unanimous ruling provided hope for religious organizations that are fighting similar battles, but it was not a sweeping decision.
“Unfortunately, the opinion stops short of recognizing that the First Amendment protects Americans from unequal constraints that discriminate against them on account of their religious beliefs and practices,” said Kara Rollins, a lawyer for New Civil Liberties Alliance, which has filed an amicus brief in the case.
“This is good news for Baptists and all people of faith,” said Mike Griffin, public affairs representative for the Georgia Baptist Mission Board. “Although the decision wasn’t as broad as we would have liked, it is a step in the right direction. This case serves as a reminder that all Americans have a conscientious right to the free exercise of religion — including faith-based adoption and foster care agencies — and that government cannot discriminate against them.”
The foster care case involved Catholic Social Services in Philadelphia.
“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,” Chief Justice John Roberts wrote in the ruling.
Roberts said Catholic Social Services “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.”
Philadelphia, which requires that agencies it contracts with for services not discriminate on the basis of sexual orientation, had asked Catholic Social Services to change its policy, but the organization declined.
Philadelphia then stopped referring additional children to the agency.
Catholic Social Services filed a lawsuit. Lower courts sided with Philadelphia.
Lori Windham, the lawyer with The Becket Fund for Religious Liberty who argued on behalf of Catholic Social Services, celebrated the win, saying “it’s a beautiful day when the highest court in the land protects foster moms and the 200-year-old religious ministry that supports them.”
Roberts said in the ruling that “government fails to act neutrally when it proceeds in a manner intolerant of religious beliefs or restricts practices because of their religious nature.
“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.”