The U.S. Supreme Court heard oral arguments Wednesday morning in a key religious liberty case that focuses on the right of faith-based social service agencies to provide services while holding their religious beliefs.
In Fulton v. City of Philadelphia – one of the first cases to come before the Supreme Court with Justice Amy Coney Barrett, who was sworn in last week – the city of Philadelphia told Catholic Social Services (CSS) it must either change its religious practices or shut down, preventing children in need from being placed with loving foster families.
Single foster mothers Sharonell Fulton and Toni Simms-Busch, both women of color, asked the Supreme Court to protect their right to provide foster care to children in need, in partnership with a Catholic organization that shares their faith beliefs and values.
Lori Windham, senior counsel at Becket Fund for Religious Liberty, presented oral arguments telephonically on behalf of Fulton, Simms-Busch, and Catholic Social Services, arguing the First Amendment protects the right of faith-based organizations to serve those in need without giving up their closely held religious beliefs.
During oral arguments, Justice Brett Kavanaugh referred to the city of Philadelphia’s position as “absolutist and extreme,” observing that “no same-sex couple has ever come to Catholic Social Services for participation in this program.”
Justice Stephen Breyer expressed what is “bothering me a lot” about the case is that no same-sex “family has ever been turned down by this agency—indeed has never applied.”
Justice Neil Gorsuch pointed out the city could “effectively take over a service that had been provided privately for some time, and take it over so much so that it regulates it pervasively and this [Free Exercise] analysis shouldn’t apply at all.”
“Religious organizations should be free to serve the public, regardless of their beliefs,” said Windham in a statement. “The public square is big enough to accommodate everyone who wishes to do good – and that should be especially true when it comes to taking care of children in need.”
“My faith has led me to become a foster mother to children that society had abused and discarded,” foster mother and plaintiff Fulton said in a statement. “As a single woman of color, I’ve learned a thing or two about discrimination over the years—but I’ve never experienced the vindictive religious discrimination the City’s politicians have expressed toward my faith.”
In 2018, the city of Philadelphia made the decision to end referrals of children in need of foster care to Catholic Social Services, citing a law that bans discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation.
Breitbart News reported at the time:
The lawsuit notes that Catholic Social Services has partnered with the City for decades to place foster children in stable, loving homes and has “a proven track record of compassion, quality, and success.” On an average day, Catholic Social Services “serves more than 120 children in foster care, and it supervises around 100 different foster homes,” it says, for a total service of more than 2,200 at-risk children in Philadelphia last year alone.
Catholic League president Bill Donohue provided further context:
Miami Archbishop Thomas Wenski, who is also the chairman of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops’ Committee for Religious Liberty, noted on November 2 that “The Church pioneered foster care in Philadelphia 150 years before the government got involved.” But because CSS, following Church teachings, will not place children with homosexual couples, the government is seeking to force it to get into line with its amoral values.
The Supreme Court’s decision in the case is expected to have an impact on the future of religious liberty in a variety of cases and in defending the right of faith-based ministries to provide their services while practicing their closely held beliefs.