(Reuters) – The US Supreme Court embraced religious rights over LGBT rights on Thursday, by ruling in favour of a Catholic Church-affiliated agency, that sued after Philadelphia refused to place children for foster care with the organisation, because it barred same-sex couples from applying to become foster parents.
The 9-0 ruling, written by conservative Chief Justice John Roberts, was a victory for Catholic Social Services, part of the Archdiocese of Philadelphia. The court said that the city’s refusal to use the Catholic agency for foster care services, unless it agreed to certify same-sex couples, violates the US Constitution’s First Amendment guarantee of the free exercise of religion.
Catholic Social Services (CSS) argued that Philadelphia had penalised it for its religious views, and for following church teachings on marriage. The court did not rule on some of the broader legal questions raised by religious rights advocates.
In the ruling, Roberts wrote:
“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.”
The case, argued before the court in November, pitted LGBT rights against religious rights. It was one of the first major cases that former President Donald Trump’s third appointee to the court, Amy Coney Barrett, participated in, after being confirmed by the US Senate in October.
The Philadelphia-based 3rd Circuit Court of Appeals in 2019 ruled against Catholic Social Services, saying it had not shown that Philadelphia had treated it differently because of its religious affiliation. US District Judge Petrese Tucker in Philadelphia in 2018 also ruled against the organisation, finding that the city’s anti-discrimination measures were applied uniformly, meaning the group’s religious rights were not violated, and it was not entitled to an exemption.
Catholic Social Services, which has helped provide foster care services for more than a century, had said it would be compelled to close its foster care operations if it was unable to participate in Philadelphia’s program.
Philadelphia in 2018 suspended foster care referrals to Catholic Social Services, which then sued alongside three foster parents.
Eleven of the 50 states currently allow private agencies to refuse to place children with same-sex couples, according to the Movement Advancement Project, a group backing gay rights.
Philadelphia in 2018 suspended foster care referrals to Catholic Social Services after a newspaper report about the organisation’s policy of turning away same-sex couples seeking to serve as foster parents. The organisation had a contract with the city for placement of foster children. It said the city’s action meant that available foster homes were sitting empty, amid a foster care crisis in the city of about 1.5 million people.
The Supreme Court in recent years has sent mixed messages on the conflict between LGBT and religious rights.
It backed gay rights in a series of landmark rulings, including a 2015 decision legalising same-sex marriage nationwide, and a June 2020 ruling that a federal law barring workplace discrimination protects gay and transgender employees.
The court also bolstered religious rights in several decisions, including a 2014 ruling that allowed owners of businesses to raise religious objections against the government.
Reporting by Lawrence Hurley