WASHINGTON (CN) — The Supreme Court ruled unanimously Thursday the city of Philadelphia committed religious discrimination when it refused to place foster children through a Catholic foster care agency that does not work with gay couples.
Philadelphia ended its contract with Catholic Social Services after a local media outlet reported that someone at the agency had said they would not place children with same-sex couples due to religious beliefs.
There are about 6,000 foster children in Philadelphia, and Catholic Social Services was one of 30 agencies that the city contracted with to place these children. Sharonell Fulton and Toni Simms-Busch, two foster parents licensed through Catholic Social Services, filed suit over the agency's exclusion in May 2018.
Before Thursday, they had lost at every step of the litigation. The women appealed to the high court in Washington after the Third Circuit affirmed that the agency was discriminating against members of the LGBTQ community in violation of the nondiscrimination clause of its contract.
In their first legal win, Chief Justice John Roberts disagreed with the lower courts that the nondiscrimination clause of Philadelphia's contracts with foster agencies was neutral and generally applicable because it didn't target specific religious practices.
“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 in Thursday's reversal. “The refusal of Philadelphia to contract with CSS for the provision of foster care services unless the agency agrees to certify same-sex couples as foster parents cannot survive strict scrutiny and violates the Free Exercise Clause of the First Amendment.”
At the National Center for Lesbian Rights, legal director Shannon Minter on Thursday called it "the narrowest possible ground" on which the court could rule.
Roberts underscored this himself in the opinion where he wrote, “put another way, so long as the government can achieve its interests in a manner that does not burden religion, it must do so."
Stephanie Haynes, executive director of Philadelphia Family Pride, called on Philadelphia to address the constitutional concerns the court identified.
"LGBTQ people are just as qualified to be foster parents as anyone else," she said in a statement. "There is no reason our families should be turned away from fostering children. In states across the country, many children spend years in a group home before being placed with a foster family, if ever.”
The American Civil Liberties Union released a careful analysis of the ruling Thursday that says the decision should not be read as authorizing religious organizations to violate nondiscrimination laws. Where Philadelphia erred was in lining its contract with discretionary exemptions that rendered the nondiscrimination not generally applicable.
"Federal, state, and local governments can and should continue to pass and enforce comprehensive nondiscrimination laws,” Leslie Cooper, deputy director of the ACLU LGBTQ & HIV Project, said in a statement.
When Philadelphia defended its policy before the court in November oral arguments, it highlighted its obligations to maximize the number of foster parents the city had available, protect the city from lawsuits, and ensure the equal treatment of prospective foster parents and foster children.
Roberts took down these arguments piece by piece Thursday.
“Because the authority to certify foster families is delegated to agencies by the state, not the city,” he wrote, Philadelphia has little basis to claim that it will face a lawsuit if it renewed CSS' contract.
As for the city’s interest in equal treatment, Roberts wrote that the potential for injury “cannot justify denying CSS an exception for its religious exercise.”