Crime & Justice

At Supreme Court, Justices Consider Religion, LGBTQ Rights

The Supreme Court heard arguments in a case that pit religious freedom against LGBTQ rights.
The Supreme Court heard arguments in a case that pit religious freedom against LGBTQ rights.
J. Scott Applewhite/AP

The U.S. Supreme Court may be poised to side with Catholic Social Services in a battle that pits religious freedom against anti-discrimination laws in Philadelphia. At issue is a Catholic charity's refusal to screen same-sex couples as foster care parents.

While new Justice Amy Coney Barrett did not indicate which way she is leaning, other members of the court's conservative majority did.

Seven of the court's nine justices were raised as Catholics, including Barrett, and in the past five of them have pushed for an expansion of religious rights under the constitution's guarantee to the free exercise of religion.

Wednesday's case, however, involved government contracting — an area of the law where the court in the past has said that government is at the apex of its power to impose conditions. On one side is the city of Philadelphia, which has custody of about 5,000 abused and neglected children, and contracts with 30 private agencies to provide foster care in group homes and for the certification, placement, and care of children in individual private foster care homes.

The problem is that the city's contracts ban discrimination against LGBT couples in the screening of foster parents, and Catholic Social Services, citing religious grounds, refuses to consider and certify same-sex married couples. Because of that, the city ended its contract with CSS for those services in the future. Two lower courts upheld the city's decision, but on Wednesday the Supreme Court didn't seem so sure.

Four of the court's conservative justices — Samuel Alito, Clarence Thomas, Brett Kavanaugh, and Neil Gorsuch — seemed overtly hostile to the city's position, stressing the good work that CSS does for needy children.

The court's three liberals — Justices Stephen Breyer, Elena Kagan, Sonia Sotomayor — by contrast, stressed the city's ban on contracting with groups that discriminate based on race, ethnicity, religion and gender. What if an agency wanted to discriminate based on those characteristics? Justice Barrett suggested that in her view race is different than all other categories. Chief Justice John Roberts asked difficult questions of both sides. And at the end of the day, the outcome of the case was not clear, with at least one justice in each camp seeming to ask for a compromise.

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