If there is any single area in which the current Supreme Court bench has been consistent, it would be in its defense of religious liberty against government actions that prohibit or restrict Americans’ freedom to worship.
That trend continued Thursday when the Supreme Court ruled unanimously in favor of a Catholic foster care agency that filed suit against the city of Philadelphia over a decision they said violated their religious beliefs, according to SCOTUSblog.
Chief Justice John Roberts wrote the majority opinion in the case, Fulton v. City of Philadelphia, and was joined by Justices Amy Coney Barrett, Stephen Breyer, Elena Kagan, Brett Kavanaugh, and Sonia Sotomayor.
Justice Barrett wrote a separate but concurring opinion of her own, joined by Breyer and Kavanaugh, as did Justice Samuel Alito, who was joined by Justices Neil Gorsuch and Clarence Thomas. Gorsuch also authored an opinion, which Alito and Thomas signed onto.
The facts of the case
At issue in the case, according to Breitbart, was a decision by the city of Philadelphia to no longer contract with the foster agency Catholic Social Services (CSS) unless they agreed to certify same-sex couples as foster parents. Such a move, they said, would essentially require them to renounce their religious beliefs, and as such, CSS argued before the court that the city had violated the Free Exercise Clause of the First Amendment — an argument that both a district court and the U.S. Third Circuit Court of Appeals rejected.
The SCOTUS sided with CSS, however, and reversed the lower courts’ rulings in a 9-0 decision that declared Philadelphia had, indeed, violated the First Amendment by attempting to force the agency to act counter to the tenets of its faith.
In their concurring opinions, many of the justices focused on the applicability of a precedent set by the 1990 Employment Division v. Smith, which was cited by Philadelphia in its defense, as it opened the door for laws that infringed upon religious beliefs, as long as those laws were generally applicable to everyone else, regardless of religion.
In Roberts’ opinion, the court set aside the Smith defense and instead invoked an exception found in the city’s contract with CSS that allows the agency an exemption from the city’s anti-discrimination statutes. Alito and Gorsuch, meanwhile, criticized the Roberts-led majority for avoiding the Smith precedent, and argued forcefully for that prior decision to be overruled, given that the issue of religious liberty being violated may find itself before the high court again in the near future.
A victory for religious liberty
Regardless of its potentially fleeting nature, Catholic League President Bill Donohue celebrated the ruling as “a huge victory for religious liberty and a resounding defeat for LGBTQ activists.”
In a statement, Donohue highlighted the fact that the entire fight was spurred by the city, not by complaints from any same-sex couples who were rejected by the foster care agency.
“It was these activists who launched a contrived assault on the rights of Catholic social service agencies — no gay or transgender couple had ever complained that they were discriminated against by these Catholic entities — and now their effort to impose their secular beliefs on Catholics has been rejected,” he said.
“The First Amendment guarantees religious liberty, and that provision means little if it only means the right to worship,” Donohue added. “The right to freely exercise one’s religious beliefs in the public square is central to religious liberty, and while that right — like all other constitutional rights — is not absolute, it must be seen as presumptively constitutional.”