Updated: 3:30 p.m.
The Supreme Court ruled on Thursday that the city of Philadelphia violated the Constitution by limiting its relationship with a Catholic foster care agency over the group’s refusal to certify same-sex couples as foster parents.
The justices came down unanimously against Philadelphia and for Catholic Social Services.
“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.
The decision means that if the city permits any kind of exemption when it comes to contracts with foster care agencies, it must allow religious exemptions. The city said that will create a “confusing patchwork in government programs” and “weaken government non-discrimination guarantees.”
Catholic Social Services, which is affiliated with the Archdiocese of Philadelphia, has said that its Catholic beliefs prevent it from certifying same-sex couples as foster parents.
During a virtual news conference, attorney Laurie Windham, who represented the Archdiocese, said the high court’s decision was a “common-sense ruling in favor of religious social services.”
Archbishop Nelson Perez called Thursday’s decision a “crystal clear affirmation of First Amendment rights.”
“I have often said that we are a people of hope. It is my personal hope that today’s decision makes it abundantly clear that religious ministries cannot be forced to abandon their beliefs as the price for ministering to those in need,” said Perez.
“We can all live and work peacefully, side-by-side to create a better and brighter future for all of our children,” he added.
Philadelphia learned in 2018 from a newspaper reporter that Catholic Social Services would not work with same-sex couples. The city has said it requires that the two dozen-plus foster care agencies it works with not to discriminate as part of their contracts. The city asked the Catholic agency to change its policy, but the group declined. As a result, Philadelphia stopped referring additional children to the agency.
Catholic Social Services sued, but lower courts sided with Philadelphia.
In a statement, City Solicitor Diana Cortes called the high court’s ruling a “difficult and disappointing setback” for foster care youth and foster parents.
“With today’s decision, the Court has usurped the City’s judgement that a non-discrimination policy is in the best interests of the children in its care, with disturbing consequences for other government programs and services,” said Cortes. “At the same time, the city is gratified that the Supreme Court did not, as the plaintiffs sought, radically change existing constitutional law to adopt a standard that would force court-ordered religious exemptions from civic obligations in every arena.”
The ACLU of Pennsylvania, which argued the case alongside the city, was equally disappointed by Thursday’s ruling. Mary Catherine Roper, deputy legal director, said the narrow decision is bad news for foster children in Philadelphia.
“It’s still a rule that allows discrimination in our foster system, and allows qualified families to be turned away for reasons that have nothing to do with the care of the children. And that really should be the only thing that governs who gets to be a foster parent,” said Roper in an interview.
In response to the ruling, legal observers say cities like Philadelphia could decide to rewrite their contract language for foster care agencies so there are no exceptions to the non-discrimation requirement at the heart of the case, though the decision could invite more litigation from religious organizations.
Tobias Wolff, a constitutional law professor at the University of Pennsylvania, said local governments also have the option of going in the opposite direction.
“Agencies at the city, state, and county level are just gonna say, ‘You know what, this is too much trouble. Let’s just give all the religious adherents whatever exemptions they want.’ And I suspect that may be the direction that we see things going in as a practical matter,” said Wolff.
“The narrowness of the ruling, in some ways, shouldn’t hide the fact that this is another step in a systematic roadmap for people who claim religious reasons for not wanting to follow the law, effectively getting to write their own ticket,” he added.
Mayoral spokeswoman Deana Gamble said Thursday the city’s Law Department is still reviewing its options.
The Associated Press contributed reporting.