Philadelphia violated constitution when it dropped Catholic group that declined to work with same-sex foster parents, SCOTUS rules

The US Supreme Court has ruled that the city of Philadelphia violated the US Constitution when it ended a contract with Catholic Social Services (CSS) because the group refused to work with same-sex couples as foster parents.

In a unanimous decision issued on Thursday, the court said the city failed to neutrally apply its non-discrimination policy when it ended CSS’s long-standing contract in 2018. 

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“CSS seeks only an accommodation that will allow it to continue serving the children of Philadelphia in a manner consistent with its religious beliefs,” Chief Justice John Roberts wrote. “It does not seek to impose those beliefs on anyone else.”

The city relies on contracts with private agencies to place displaced children with foster families. CSS, which had been among those contractors for more than 50 years, had a policy against placing children with unmarried or same-sex couples. No same-sex couples sought certification as foster parents through CSS, as 20 other agencies in the city work with them, but Philadelphia cut off the Catholic group after a newspaper article exposed its policy.

The ACLU tried to diminish Thursday’s ruling as “very narrow,” saying it stemmed from the language of Philadelphia’s foster-services contract, but a city official acknowledged that the decision has ramifications for other public services. 

“The court has usurped the city’s judgment 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,” city solicitor Diana Cortes said in a statement. 

Despite the fact that CSS is vastly outnumbered by agencies that gladly place children with same-sex foster parents, US Representative Pramila Jayapal (D-Washington) said Congress must “urgently respond” to the SCOTUS ruling by passing legislation preventing LGBTQ Americans from discrimination.

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“This is such a disappointing ruling from SCOTUS in Fulton v. Philadelphia,” Jayapal said. “This case isn’t about religious freedom. It’s about discrimination against LGBTQ+ families who want to give foster children a loving home.”

But Roberts wrote that by forcing CSS to either curtail its mission or violate its religious beliefs, the city violated the Free Exercise Clause of the First Amendment. The Catholic Church has served orphans and other needy children in Philadelphia for more than two centuries. 

“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,” said Lori Windham, a lawyer representing CSS and three foster parents who joined in the lawsuit against the city. “Taking care of children, especially children who have been neglected and abused, is a universal value that spans all ideological divides.”

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