In a unanimous ruling, the U.S. Supreme Court determined that Philadelphia violated the First Amendment’s protections for free exercise of religion when it cut ties with a Catholic group that discriminated against LGBTQ+ couples. It did not, however, overturn governments’ abilities to enforce nondiscrimination laws.
The case, Fulton vs. the City of Philadelphia, dates back to March 2018, when the city pulled its foster care contract from Catholic Social Services (CSS) after the Philadelphia Inquirer described the organization’s practices of not placing foster children with LGBTQ+ couples. CSS, along with several foster parents, sued the city, claiming that the First Amendment protects the agency because it has a sincerely held religious belief that children should not be placed with “same-sex” couples. It argues that from 1917 to 2018, no same-sex couple approached CSS looking to foster children.
But Philadelphia said all taxpayer-funded services have to comply with its nondiscrimination laws, including the one protecting LGBTQ+ people. Other religiously affiliated contractors in the city have agreed to comply with the rule, which dates back to 1982.
In the narrow decision, the court found that the City of Philadelphia’s policy for foster and adoption agencies was not sufficiently neutral.
“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,” Chief Justice John Roberts wrote.
The Trevor Project, which advocates for the mental health of LGBTQ+ youth, said in a statement there was a sense of relief for the court’s actions and noted the decision could be confusing.
“We are relieved that the Supreme Court did not recognize a general license to discriminate against LGBTQ people based on religious beliefs,” said Amit Paley, CEO and executive director of The Trevor Project, a suicide prevention group. “LGBTQ young people may be hearing conflicting messages about what happened at the Supreme Court today and internalizing that news. This decision is disappointing in some ways, but LGBTQ youth should know it is also incredibly narrow and depends on unique circumstances in Philadelphia.”
Paley added that the decision “underscores the need to pass the Equality Act,” which would grant nondiscrimination protections for LGBTQ+ people at the federal level.
Human Rights Campaign President Alphonso David said in a statement that the decision “does not negate the fact that every qualified family is valid and worthy — children deserve a loving, caring, committed home.”
The HRC wrote in an explainer that a lack of qualified prospective parents is the biggest barrier to placing children in foster care. “If the court had given taxpayer-funded agencies a license to discriminate, thereby limiting the pool of prospective parents for no legitimate reason, this would further shrink the pool of qualified prospective parents,” the explainer said.
David said “there is more work that must be done” both to always put the best interests of the child first and to make sure LGBTQ people “do not face discrimination anywhere in the country in every aspect of public life.”