WASHINGTON — The U.S. Supreme Court ruled Thursday that the city of Philadelphia went too far in imposing its anti-discrimination law on a Roman Catholic charity, Catholic Social Services, that refused to consider same-sex parents eligible to adopt foster children.
The case required the justices to decide whether the Constitution allows a religious freedom exception to anti-discrimination laws. It was the first of this term's major legal disputes to be heard with Justice Amy Coney Barrett, an appointee of President Donald Trump, on the court.
The court's ruling was unanimous, but it was narrowly confined to the facts of this case and is therefore unlikely to have a nationwide impact.
"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," Chief Justice John Roberts wrote for the majority. A number of justices wrote concurring opinions.
The court rejected the urging of Catholic Social Services, one of 30 agencies that contract with Philadelphia to find homes for abused and neglected children, for a broad ruling that would allow religious objections to overcome anti-discrimination laws.
“We are relieved that the court did not recognize a license to discriminate based on religious beliefs,” said Leslie Cooper of the ACLU. “This is good news for LGBTQ people and for everyone who depends on the protections of non-discrimination laws."
Since the Supreme Court struck down laws against gay marriage in 2015, lawsuits have sprung up around the nation brought by bakers, florists, photographers, and others who say their religious beliefs will not allow them to provide services for same-sex weddings.
In the background is the court's 1990 decision that said religious groups are not exempt from general local, state, and federal laws, including those banning discrimination. A decision to overturn that ruling would make it easier for businesses to claim a religious exemption from laws that ban discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation. But civil liberties groups say it would blunt efforts to fight discrimination.
Two years ago the court confronted but failed to decide a similar issue in the case of a Colorado man who said baking cakes for same-sex weddings would violate his religious freedom and right of free expression, even though a state law banned discrimination based on sexual orientation.
After learning in 2018 that CSS would not consider same-sex couples as potential parents for foster children, the city of Philadelphia insisted that all its contractors agree not to discriminate.
So the charity sued. It said endorsing same-sex couples as foster parents would violate its religious teachings about marriage. In response, Philadelphia said the charity was free to express and practice its religious views but not to dictate the terms of municipal contracts. The city also said the charity was not being punished for its religious views, noting that it still has city contracts, worth millions of dollars a year, to perform other services for children in foster care.
Lower federal courts said the city acted properly to enforce its nondiscrimination laws. The 3rd Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that "religious belief will not excuse compliance with general civil rights laws."