Supreme Court Unanimously Rules State Can’t Shut Down Catholic Adoption Agency That Won’t Compromise Its Values

National   |   Steven Ertelt   |   Jun 17, 2021   |   11:14AM   |   Washington, DC

In another huge victory for religious liberty, the Supreme Court has unanimously ruled that the state can’t shut down a Catholic adoption agency that refused to compromise its Christian values.

The encouraging ruling has positive ramifications for the pro-life movement when it comes to conscience rights issues for pro-life groups and individuals.

In 2018, the city of Philadelphia canceled its contracts with Catholic Social Services due to its religious beliefs about marriage, displacing hundreds of children in the process.

The city had put out an urgent call for 300 families to provide foster care to help care for the flood of children coming into the system due to the opioid crisis. Just a few days later, right in its moment of need, the city halted the child placements of Catholic Social Services and Bethany Christian Services to investigate whether these agencies had violated the city’s Fair Practices Ordinance, a policy that prohibits “discrimination” on the basis of sexual orientation or gender identity.

Some religious adoption agencies opt to place children only with mother-father parents, in accord with their deeply held religious convictions. This includes some of the oldest and highest-performing adoption agencies in the country.

Catholic Social Services is one of Philadelphia’s best agencies and has partnered with the city for over 50 years. Yet in March 2018 the city suddenly threatened to shut down the agency because it disagreed with the agency’s longstanding religious beliefs about marriage—even though not one LGBTQ couple has ever approached Catholic seeking certification and the agency never prevented a child from finding a home. Represented by Becket, Sharonell Fulton, a single mother who has fostered more than 40 children in 26 years, joined other foster parents licensed through Catholic Social Services to file a lawsuit against the city.

Attorneys for the Catholic adoption agency in Fulton v. City of Philadelphia argued the Constitution prevents governments from banning faith-based providers over disagreement about the meaning and importance of marriage. The brief also argues that, to prevent abuses by lower courts, the Supreme Court should reaffirm that government interests must be truly compelling to justify interfering with religious freedom.

In Sharonell Fulton, et al. v. City of Philadelphia, a federal court of appeals sided the discriminatory city policy that forbids the Catholic Social Services from doing what it has done for almost a century: uniting foster children with loving families.

But today the nation’s highest court reversed that decision and ruled that Philadelphia cant screen prospective parents and bar them from adopting.

Chief Justice John Roberts, writing for six members of the court, said that since the city allowed exceptions to its policies for some other agencies it must also do so in this instance. The Catholic agency, he wrote, “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.”

Justices Breyer, Sotomayor, Kavanaugh, Kagan and Barrett joined the main opinion while Justices Alito, Gorsuch and Thomas joined together for a concurring opinion.

“I am overjoyed that the Supreme Court recognized the import work of Catholic Social Services and has allowed me to continue fostering children most in need of a loving home,” said foster mom and named plaintiff Sharonell Fulton. “My faith is what drives me to care for foster children here in Philadelphia and I thank God the Supreme Court believes that’s a good thing, worthy of protection.”

“The Justices understand that foster parents like me share in the common, noble task of providing children with loving homes,” said Toni Simms-Busch, also a foster mom and named plaintiff. “Our foster-care ministry in Philadelphia is vital to solving the foster care crisis and Catholic Social Services is a cornerstone of that ministry. The Supreme Court’s decision ensures the most vulnerable children in the City of Brotherly Love have every opportunity to find loving homes.”

“It’s a beautiful day when the highest court in the land protects foster moms and the 200-year-old religious ministry that supports them,” said Lori Windham, senior counsel at Becket who argued the case in Fulton. “Taking care of children, especially children who have been neglected and abused is a universal value that spans all ideological divides. Today, I am grateful that the Supreme Court protected heroes of the foster care system like Sharonell and Toni, who give of themselves daily to care for children in need.”

Alliance Defending Freedom General Counsel Kristen Waggoner responded to the decision in comments to LifeNews:

“Every child in need of a forever home deserves the chance to be adopted or cared for by a foster family. That’s what it means to keep kids first. The Supreme Court’s decision today allows that to continue happening. The government can’t single out people of certain beliefs to punish, sideline, or discriminate against them. We’re grateful for the good decision today consistent with that principle.”

The pro-life group Focus on the Family added: “Today Focus on the Family and people of faith everywhere are relieved and hopeful. The tremendous news that all nine justices on the Supreme Court acknowledge the value and historical precedence in allowing faith-based foster care and adoption agencies to continue operating according to their religious principles is welcome in a culture that is increasingly antagonistic toward our deeply held beliefs.”