“This is the first case in which a foster care agency has won at the Supreme Court, and the first time the court has spoken on that particular issue.” Nick Reeves, an attorney at the Becket Fund for religious liberty, told The Epoch Times last Friday after the U.S. Supreme Court unanimously ruled on June 17 that Catholic Social Services (CSS) in Philadelphia was free to turn away same-sex couples as foster parents on grounds of religious freedom.
“The Supreme Court has, for a number of years, been ruling in favor of religious liberty. And it’s an important Constitutional right that the court has protected,” he added.
The case is Fulton v. City of Philadelphia, No. 19-123 in the Supreme Court of the United States, in which CSS sued Philadelphia after the city stopped referring children to CSS due to its religious beliefs about marriage.
Reeves was excited about the court’s decision: “So the entire Supreme Court, all nine Justices agreed that the city of Philadelphia was wrong, to break its contract with Catholic Social Services because of the agency’s religious beliefs.”
The case was sparked over a newspaper article published in 2018 that reported on CSS not considering prospective foster parents from same-sex marriages. The Philadelphia city government then demanded that CSS change its religious practices or close its ministry. CSS refused and filed a lawsuit against the city. On April 22, 2019, the Philadelphia-based 3rd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals denied CSS’s request to protect its ministry. In July 2019, the case was sent to the Supreme Court.
Reeves said one of the key points in this case is that: “CSS has never prevented a single couple, any same-sex couple, or anyone from becoming a foster parent. If the same-sex couple were to come to them, and none had during this litigation or before this litigation, they would help them find another agency in the city.” CSS holds the religious belief that marriage is a sacred bond between a man and a woman, and does not certify same-sex couples to be foster parents. There are over 20 other agencies that can certify same-sex couples.
“So this really isn’t a question about whether same-sex couples can foster or adopt. This case is really about whether a 200-year-old religious ministry can continue serving those in need, without changing their religious belief.” Reeves said, “The city was trying to use its contracting power, and numerous other laws to go after Catholic Social Services because of their religious beliefs.”
The Supreme Court stated that CSS did not violate Philadelphia’s Fair Practices Ordinance: “Certification as a foster parent is not readily accessible to the public; the process involves a customized and selective assessment that bears little resemblance to staying in a hotel, eating at a restaurant, or riding a bus.”
The foster care certification process is uniquely selective.
After last November’s oral argument at the Supreme Court, Reeves felt optimistic about the case. “You can’t discriminate against a religious organization based on their religious beliefs. And no one was being prevented from fostering or adopting. Even though it might seem like a controversial issue in the media.”
Reeves was so pleased that individual foster mothers such as Sharonell Fulton can continue partnering with the faith-based agency of her choice. Fulton is a single black mother, one of three plaintiffs, who has been fostering over 40 children in the last 25 years in partnership with Catholic Social Services. The majority of foster children came from disadvantaged communities and experienced severe trauma.
“I’m grateful that we can finally rest,” said another plaintiff Tony Simmons Bush at a press conference. He has adopted two young boys and was a foster care worker in Philadelphia. “Nothing could have prepared me for the shock that I felt when Philadelphia threatened to close Catholic Social Services foster care ministry. I cannot stand by and let the city shut down an agency that helps children find loving homes on a daily basis.”
One plaintiff, Cecilia Paul, unfortunately passed away during the case.
Archbishop Nelson Perez of Philadelphia also spoke at the press conference: “Today’s decision from our nation’s highest court is a profound one that rings loudly in Philadelphia and reverberates throughout the country. It brings light and relief for children in need of loving homes, and for the heroic foster parents who open their hearts and doors to care for them.”
There are about 6,000 children in the foster care system across the city. When CSS was operating at full capacity, they had over 100 children at any given time in their care. But after the city ended its contract with CSS, families were left with empty beds, even though the city says children are waiting to be adopted.
Reaves hopes that people will learn from this case. “The Supreme Court was very clear that even when you’re partnering with the government, you don’t lose your First Amendment rights. The government still has to respect your religious beliefs,” he said, adding that there are similar cases in Michigan and New York.
City Solicitor Diana Cortes Stated: “Despite the challenges posed by today’s ruling, we will continue to care for our city’s foster care youth, including in partnership with Catholic Social Services, and to support the loving families who welcome them into their homes.” The city will recognize and respect the Supreme Court’s ruling.
Reeves has noticed that over the past decade, there has been a long string of Supreme Court wins for religious liberty. “The vast majority of Supreme Court religious liberty wins have been overwhelming majorities just like this one.” Reeves said, “This was a unanimous nine to zero opinion. If you look back at other major religious liberty cases, a lot of them were nine to zero or seven to two, showing that religious liberty is something that can still bring people together today.”