The Supreme Court ruled unanimously Thursday that Philadelphia was wrong to end a Catholic group’s contract to provide foster-care services because the organization refused to work with same-sex couples.
It was the latest victory for religious organizations at the increasingly conservative court, and the second time it has ruled against governments trying to enforce an anti-discrimination law protecting LGBTQ rights against those claiming religious liberty.
But the opinion, written by Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr., was narrow enough to draw the support of the court’s three liberals — and the consternation of its three most conservative members for not going further.
Roberts reasoned that because Philadelphia theoretically allows some exceptions to its policy, the city had violated the Constitution’s guarantee of free exercise of religion by not extending one to Catholic Social Services, which screens potential foster-care parents.
“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 wrote. “The refusal of Philadelphia to contract with CSS for the provision of foster care services unless it agrees to certify same-sex couples as foster parents cannot survive strict scrutiny, and violates the First Amendment.”
The opinion was joined by conservative Justices Brett M. Kavanaugh and Amy Coney Barrett, as well as the court’s liberals, Stephen G. Breyer, Sonia Sotomayor and Elena Kagan.
The court’s most conservative members — Justices Clarence Thomas, Samuel A. Alito Jr. and Neil M. Gorsuch — agreed with the outcome but were put off by its limited scope.
“The Court has emitted a wisp of a decision that leaves religious liberty in a confused and vulnerable state,” Alito wrote. “Those who count on this Court to stand up for the First Amendment have every right to be disappointed — as am I.”
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