Supreme Court rules unanimously in favor of Catholic agency religious exemption

The U.S. Supreme Court ruled unanimously that the city of Philadelphia could not cut ties with a Catholic social agency over its refusal to place children with same-sex foster families because of its religious beliefs.

The action by Philadelphia was a violation of Catholic Social Services (CSS) agency’s religious protections under the First Amendment of the Constitution, according to the majority opinion by Chief Justice John Roberts.

The city tried to claim that the agency was violating its anti-discrimination policy, but that argument did not hold water with a single justice, even the very liberal ones.

“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,” Roberts wrote. “The refusal of Philadelphia to contract with CSS for the provision of foster care services unless it agrees to certify same-sex couples as foster parents cannot survive strict scrutiny, and violates the First Amendment.”

Lower court reversed

A lower court had ruled Philadelphia could refuse to contract with the agency because of the agency’s religious beliefs, which contradict the city’s.

Roberts wrote, “[I]t is plain that the City’s actions have burdened CSS’s religious exercise by putting it to the choice of curtailing its mission or approving relationships inconsistent with its beliefs.” In other words, religious exercise has a greater importance than non-discrimination, particularly when there are other agencies the city can work with that meet their criteria for non-discrimination.

The court does not want people’s free exercise of religion taken away because of some litmus test of political correctness. It’s a good reminder of the primary importance of religious expression in our society.

The ruling noted that Philadelphia admitted during the case that CSS has “long been a point of light in the city’s foster care system.”

Religious beliefs above other beliefs

The court did a very important thing in this case: it showed that religious beliefs are on a different level than secular beliefs that don’t have religion behind them.

There is something special about religion that is codified in the Constitution, and even the decline of established religion in the U.S. doesn’t diminish its importance in our founding documents and in the way government was set up.

The ruling was somewhat more narrow than some conservatives wanted it to be, however. Justice Samuel Alito wrote a concurring brief that was joined by Justices Neil Gorsuch and Clarence Thomas expressing disappointment that the ruling had not gone further to upend the court’s longstanding precedent on Free Exercise claims.

“After receiving more than 2,500 pages of briefing and after more than a half-year of post-argument cogitation, the Court has emitted a wisp of a decision that leaves religious liberty in a confused and vulnerable state,” Alito wrote. “Those who count on this Court to stand up for the First Amendment have every right to be disappointed — as am I.”

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