The latest religious freedom battle to make its way to the Supreme Court of the United States originated in Philadelphia. After the Supreme Court ruled in 2018 in favor of a Colorado baker who refused to bake a cake for a same-sex wedding because of his religious beliefs, this fall, the court will hear the case of a Philadelphia faith-based foster care agency that refused to place children with otherwise eligible same-sex couples.
The ruling could have implications that would reach far beyond the foster system.
At the heart of Fulton v. City of Philadelphia is whether Catholic Social Services discriminated against same-sex couples. In 2018, The Inquirer’s Julia Terruso reported that the agency refused to work with same-sex couples — in violation of the city’s nondiscrimination ordinance that covers city contractors. Following the reporting, the city froze Catholic Social Services’ contract. The agency sued, claiming Philadelphia violated its religious freedom. A federal court sided with the city, and a federal appeals court affirmed the decision.
On Monday morning, the Supreme Court announced that it will hear arguments in the case. The case is the latest of cultural-wedge issues that the Supreme Court with a Trump-appointed conservative majority has decided to weigh in on.
Catholic Social Services contends that the city violated its religious freedom and targeted the agency when it froze its contracts. If the Catholic Social Services argument prevails — the same one that two lower courts rejected — the court could give faith-based agencies the right to impose religious tests and requirements of prospective foster parents — or participants in any taxpayer-funded program rolled out by a faith-based agency. Why stop at same-sex and unmarried couples? Faith-based agencies could refuse to place children with couples who don’t attend church weekly, weren’t confirmed in their faith, or — God forbid — are of different faiths.
Philadelphia is right to fight this case. By refusing to work with same-sex couples, Catholic Social Services is implying that such placement would harm children. That is not only false but a bigoted view that should not be rewarded with public funds.
Catholic Social Services is not the only agency nationwide that discriminates against same-sex couples. In Michigan, for example, the ACLU sued both a Catholic charity and the state to bar foster agencies that discriminate against same-sex couples from receiving public funds. Philadelphians should be proud that, in this case, the city is the one fighting against discrimination and not standing shoulder to shoulder with those who discriminate. That’s consistent for the city that went to court against then-Attorney General Jeff Sessions to protect its sanctuary status (and won), supports the effort to open a supervised injection site, and is fighting in state court for the city’s right to enforce its own gun laws.
Philadelphians of all sexual identities and faiths have the right to live according to their own values. No one has the right to impose their own religion on anyone else — especially those receiving public funds and claiming to act on behalf of the city’s most vulnerable children.