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‘This Is a Very Big Deal’: Supreme Court to Hear Major Religious Rights Case

The U.S. Supreme Court on Monday agreed to hear a case on whether the city of Philadelphia may exclude a Catholic child fostering agency from the city’s foster-care system due to a policy against placing children with same-sex couples.

Fulton v. City of Philadelphia arose after a 2018 Philadelphia Inquirer investigation revealed that the Catholic Social Services (CSS) foster agency would not place any children with LGBTQ foster parents. The city of Philadelphia halted placements with the agency, ending their contract with the city. The agency and multiple foster parents then sued the city saying they were entitled to contract with the city despite their policy against issuing foster licenses to same-sex couples; their exclusion violated their First Amendment right to freely exercise their religion, they argued.

In July 2018, a federal district court rejected the argument that child welfare agencies have a right to discriminate against same-sex couples. The Third Circuit Court of Appeals affirmed that the city was enforcing its anti-discrimination policy and did not specifically target CSS due to its religious beliefs.

The case, which will be heard in the Supreme Court’s upcoming October term, will stand as another major milestone in the court’s ongoing effort to balance anti-discrimination policies and religious rights.

Several legal experts voiced concern that the Court’s decision could gut constitutional protections for the LGBTQ community.

Professor Stephen Vladeck of the University of Texas School of Law called the decision to hear the case a “very big deal.”

“This is a very big deal, and will likely be one of the biggest cases [the Supreme Court] hears next Term,” Vladeck wrote. “It’s not just about this specific case of LGBT discrimination; it also asks the Justices to revisit when neutral anti-discrimination laws must give way to individual religious objections.”

ACLU Attorney Josh Block expressed even greater concern, saying the situation was “even worse” than Vladeck had explained.

“It’s even worse than that.  This is not just a neutral anti-discrimination law regulating private actors in private adoptions,” he wrote. “It is about how the government contracts to provide its own government foster-care services in a nondiscriminatory manner.”

Anthony Michael Kreis, a law professor at Georgia State University College of Law, sounded an alarm as to what the grant of certiorari may portend.

“With the Supreme Court granting Fulton v. Philadelphia, let’s be clear what’s at stake: civil rights laws will be gutted through constitutionally mandated religious exemptions and LGBTQ people will be second-class citizens. This Court will destroy our civil rights regime,” he said.

“Let us be 100% clear: the Supreme Court is on the precipice of making LGBTQ people vulnerable to the whims of bigots who want to be laws unto themselves,” he added. This is the counter-majoritarian, anti-civil rights, regressive agenda Mitch McConnell and Donald Trump have imposed on us. The Supreme Court’s legitimacy is on the line as much as the rights of LGBTQ couple. Buckle up and get ready. Things are about to get very ugly, very quick.”

[image via Mark Wilson/Getty Images]

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Jerry Lambe is a journalist at Law&Crime. He is a graduate of Georgetown University and New York Law School and previously worked in financial securities compliance and Civil Rights employment law.