Supreme Court Ruling on Phila Case of Free Exercise of Religion

By: Gregg Zeff
On: September 29, 2021

Foster Care Concept

What is the Background on the Fulton v. Philadelphia Case?

The United States Supreme Court has just issued an opinion affecting the intersection of religious freedom and LGBTQ rights. The facts giving rise to the case Fulton v. City of Philadelphia, begin in 2018 when the City of Philadelphia barred an organization called Catholic Social Services from placing children into foster homes. Catholic Social Services, or CSS, is a religious organization that centers their practices and policies on tenants of the Catholic faith. Consequently, it was against CSS’s religious belief and organizational policy to place children into the care of same-sex couples. Due to this discriminatory practice, the City of Philadelphia passed a resolution that ultimately instructed the city’s Department of Human Services to cease sending all referrals to CSS, effectively making it impossible for CSS to participate in placing children into foster homes.

What was the Position of the Catholic Foster Care Agency?

Broadly speaking, CSS argued that its right to free exercise of religion and free speech permitted it to place children in foster care in accordance with its religious principles because it is an institution that openly operates under religious principles. The First Amendment states that a governmental entity, “shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech.” In other words, no governmental agency is permitted to create laws or policy that inhibit the right of an individual, or of a religious organization, from operating in a manner that reflects their religious beliefs. Therefore, it was the position of CSS that the Philadelphia resolution violated this clause, also known as the free exercise clause, because the resolution prohibited the organization from placing children into foster homes in accordance with their religious principles. Because the Catholic faith rejects same-sex couples, CSS argues that they were entitled as a Catholic organization to reject qualified same-sex couples as foster parents simply because they were same-sex couples.

What was the Argument for the City of Philadelphia?

Under Constitutional law, a public entity does not violate religious freedom if the law is neutral and generally applied to the public. As a result, even though a law may have a discriminatory impact against a specific religion or group of people, if the law is facially neutral and serves a compelling governmental interest, then the law is still constitutional. This is essentially what the City of Philadelphia tried to argue. The city’s position was that the resolution did not specifically target Catholic organizations like CSS, and it furthered the city’s interest in getting at-risk children into foster homes. It argued that CSS’s policy of not placing children into same-sex household limited the number of available homes for these children and did not further the public’s interest.

How did the Supreme Court Rule in this Case?

The Supreme Court’s unanimous decision, authored by Chief Justice Roberts, held that the city’s refusal to contract with CSS due to their refusal to certify same-sex couples as foster parents violated religious freedoms promised in the First Amendment. The resolution passed by the City of Philadelphia burdened CSS’s religious exercise because it left the organization with an ultimatum: it must either curtail its religious mission or abandon that mission and certify same-sex couples in violation of its religious beliefs. The Court determined that the resolution was not neutral and generally applicable because it constrained a specific clause that granted exceptions at the sole discretion of the City Commissioner. Thus, the non-discrimination requirement established by the resolution was not entirely necessary to achieve a compelling government interest and violated religious freedom.

What are the Implications for Employment Law?

One of the biggest questions the court analyzed in the Fulton decision is whether laws that are neutral toward religion and generally applicable to everyone are not subject to strict scrutiny by courts, even if those laws incidentally burden a religious group. Ultimately the court held that the issues in the Fulton case fell outside of this analysis. However, the court’s analysis of this issue places the future certain government contracts into question – especially those that include the possibility of exemptions for non-religious entities. It seems extremely likely that a court, under Fulton, could find that exemptions for non-religious reasons are subject to strict scrutiny, and it is suspected that provisions in contracts signed by thousands of state and local governments will be challenged in the upcoming years.

Contact the Zeff Law Firm with Questions on Religious Freedom in the Workplace

At Zeff Law Firm, we are always staying up to date with the latest court opinions and considering how these decisions could affect our clients. In this way, we are able to advise our clients accurately and efficiently under the current legal landscape. If you have questions or concerns about your religious freedom or LGBTQ rights in the workplace, contact our offices today.

Take Action & Contact Us Today

All Consultations are Free and Confidential

Get a Free Consultation