The Supreme Court docket upholds spiritual freedom over LGBTQ rights and nods to win a significant conservative victory

(The conversation) – It wasn’t a dramatic expansion of religious rights – not yet. But the Supreme Court ruling in favor of a Catholic adoption agency that was banned from Philadelphia’s foster care programs for refusing to work with same-sex couples will have momentous consequences. It suggests that when the broader question of whether religious groups have the right to discrimination comes before judges, they are likely to uphold religious freedom over homosexual rights.

The court’s decision, which came out in a 9-0 judgment, underscores a pluralistic approach: the Christian agency is allowed to participate in the adoption programs while adhering to their religious beliefs, and LGBTQ couples will continue to have access to other adoption agencies within the Philadelphia system.

The verdict is tight, but it means that any unequal treatment of religious groups will be seen as a violation of the First Amendment, even if this is at the expense of the dignity of LGBTQ citizens.

Perhaps the most important aspect of the judgment is its unanimity to maintain a clear standard of neutral treatment of religious and secular groups. The city government claimed it did not violate this standard, but even the Liberal judges agreed.

The city’s claim that state funding or city contract rules shifted the equation against religious rights was flatly denied by the court.

The unanimous verdict was achieved by postponing another key issue that some of the judges wanted to address: whether religious corporations or groups have a clear right to refuse service to the LGBTQ community, or whether states can insist on being in public space such belief-based groups set aside discriminatory beliefs.

However, as a Supreme Court scholar, I believe the nine judges’ decision will have far-reaching implications for current government policy and future court decisions. By subordinating the dignity of same-sex couples to the religious rights of believers, the new crucial judgment of the court will affect many interactions between religious organizations and LGBTQ citizens.

Violate the dignity of same-sex couples

The Supreme Court case concerned the city of Philadelphia’s refusal to allow Catholic Social Services to continue participating in the city’s adoption and foster care programs because the religious charity would serve non-same-sex couples.

The group alleged that this violated their right to freedom of worship in the First Amendment.

The organization, along with Sharonell Fulton and Toni Simms-Busch – two Catholic women who wanted to serve as foster parents through the agency – sued the city.

They were supported by the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty, a not-for-profit law firm behind several successful Supreme Court cases, including the 2014 Burwell v. Hobby Lobby that affirmed the ability of religious companies to refuse to pay for forms of contraception that violate their beliefs. and Little Sisters of the Poor v. Pennsylvania in 2021, which also protected religious exemptions from contraception under the Affordable Care Act.

The City of Philadelphia argued that religious rights should not harm any third party, including the dignity of same-sex couples who are publicly said to be unacceptable.

A constitutional law professor wrote in an amicus letter on behalf of the city: “Believers can believe what they want and organize their affairs through discriminatory purposes, but not when the government pays and not when the public is concerned.”

But the judges seem to agree with the alternate phrase used by Fulton’s attorney, Lori Windham: “Shrink the free exercise clause every time the government expands its reach and begins to regulate work that historically and traditionally has been done by religious groups? ? “

A surprising unanimity

All nine judges agreed with the key statement that Philadelphia could not exclude Catholic social services. There was no disagreement from Judges Stephen Breyer, Elena Kagan, or Sonia Sotomayor – the current liberal wing of the court.

But three of the Conservative justices – Samuel Alito, Neil Gorsuch, and Clarence Thomas – signed separate statements agreeing with the outcome but arguing that the protection of religious rights should have been even stronger.

The judgment does not protect the ability of religious groups not to discriminate or exclude under any circumstances. Rather, it prevents government agencies from just applying different standards to religious and secular organizations. The Philadelphia Guidelines did not apply a “generally applicable” rule, but allowed for exceptions at their own discretion.

In making their decision, the judges cited previous decisions stating that if the government allows exceptions on secular grounds, the First Amendment requires that they also allow exceptions on religious grounds. As Chief Justice John Roberts put it, “The creation of a formal exemption mechanism does not make a policy generally applicable.”

Presenting the case to the judges, Fulton’s lawyer argued, “In our pluralistic society, this court has repeatedly said that there should be room for people with different views.”

Roberts’ majority opinion seems to echo this view: “No same-sex couple has ever applied for certification from CSS. If so, CSS would refer the couple to one of the more than 20 other agencies in town that currently certify all same-sex couples. “

For this reason, “CSS is only looking for an arrangement that will enable it to continue to serve the children of Philadelphia in accordance with its religious beliefs; it does not try to impose these beliefs on others. “

The expansion of religious rights

On just 15 pages, the verdict is what Judge Alito called “decision scraps” in his 77-page approval. He argued that the court should have been more courageous in ruling in favor of expanded religious rights.

Fulton’s ruling follows a long series of other rulings that have tipped in favor of religious claimants. In recent years, the court has increasingly protected the freedom of religious groups in government programs, in commerce, in public exhibitions, and in public school programs.

The latest ruling also suggests the limits of LGBTQ rights under the current court. Since the retirement in 2018 of Judge Anthony Kennedy – the author of all the major judgments on gay rights of the past few decades, including Obergefell v. Hodges, who legalized same-sex marriage across the country in 2015 – there were no major victories on the matter at the Supreme Court.But Kennedy himself pointed to the limits of LGBTQ rights when violating religious freedoms by speaking in the Obergefell ruling wrote that “the First Amendment ensures that religious organizations and individuals are adequately protected when attempting to teach the principles that are so”. fulfilling and so central to their life and faith. “

Since the Obergefell case, most Supreme Court cases dealing with LGBTQ rights have not been brought by an LGBTQ plaintiff. Instead, religious groups brought them with them – and won them over.

The Fulton case was no exception to this series of religious rights victories.

But what the judgment failed to do is a definitive answer to the question these cases are moving towards: should the rights of homosexuals or religious rights give way when the two are in irreconcilable conflict? If the court answers this question, it will likely not be unanimous. However, current developments indicate that religious rights are more likely to prevail.

As Judge Gorsuch concluded in his unanimous opinion: “If the question is evaded today, it will come up again tomorrow.”

(Morgan Marietta is an Associate Professor of Political Science at the University of Massachusetts Lowell. The views expressed in this comment do not necessarily reflect those of the Religion News Service.)

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