The Supreme Court ruled unanimously Thursday for Catholic Social Services in its fight against Philadelphia, concluding that city officials discriminated against the church affiliate because of its religious views.
The city of Philadelphia had dropped Catholic Social Services from its foster care program because the religious agency refused to comply with the city’s requirement that contractors pledge to provide equal treatment to all, including LGBTQ residents and same-sex couples.
The ruling is a victory for religious rights advocates and a setback for the gay rights movement.
But the court’s decision was narrowly focused on Philadelphia and how it handled the dispute, and may not have broad impact.
Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. said “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 cited a provision in the Philadelphia ordinance that said city officials had the discretion to exempt a religious group from arranging foster care with a same-sex couple, and they refused to grant such an exemption to the Catholic group.
That amounted to discrimination based on religion, he said. “We have never suggested that the government may discriminate against religion when acting in its managerial role,” he wrote in Fulton vs. Philadelphia.
The narrowness of the ruling may explain why the court’s three liberal justices joined Roberts in making the decision unanimous.
Three conservatives — Justices Samuel A. Alito Jr., Clarence Thomas and Neil M. Gorsuch — said they would have gone further and ruled that religious claimants are entitled to an exemption from government policies that they say conflicts with their faith. Such a ruling would have had a far broader impact.
The Supreme Court has handed down two landmark victories for gay rights in recent years. In 2015, the court ruled same-sex couples had an equal right to marry in all 50 states. And last year, the justices ruled that the federal civil rights law banning discrimination in the workplace forbids bias based on sexual orientation or gender identity.
But those rulings did not decide whether all private businesses must provide full and equal treatment for LGBTQ customers, nor did they resolve whether church-run groups must comply with anti-discrimination laws when participating in public programs.
Three years ago, the court struggled with the case of a Colorado baker who refused to make a wedding cake for a same-sex couple, despite a state law that prohibited discrimination based on sexual orientation. The justices were unable to agree on a clear ruling that applied to other similar cases.
Roberts cited that decision as precedent in the Philadelphia ruling. “Government fails to act neutrally when it proceeds in a manner intolerant of religious beliefs or restricts practices because of their religious nature,” he wrote, citing the decision in Masterpiece Cakeshop vs. Colorado.