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‘Overjoyed’ foster moms react to Supreme Court ruling in their favor 
Sharonell Fulton / Becket

Washington D.C., Jun 17, 2021 / 19:00 pm (CNA).

The foster moms at the center of the Supreme Court case Fulton v. City of Philadelphia celebrated the high court unanimously siding with them on Thursday. 

The Supreme Court ruled 9-0 in favor of the foster moms and Catholic Social Services in their lawsuit against the city of Philadelphia. The court found that the city violated the group’s free exercise of religion when it stopped contracting with them in 2018; the group had refused to certify same-sex couples as foster parents because of their Catholic beliefs on marriage.

Chief Justice John Roberts authored the majority decision of the court, joined by Justices Stephen Breyer, Sonia Sotomayor, Elena Kagan, Brett Kavanaugh, and Amy Coney Barrett. Justice Samuel Alito filed a concurring opinion, joined by Justices Clarence Thomas and Neil Gorsuch. Gorsuch also filed a concurring opinion, joined by Thomas and Alito, and Barrett also filed a concurring opinion, joined by Kavanaugh, and Breyer – in part.

In a statement on Thursday, foster mom and plaintiff Sharonell Fulton said she was “overjoyed that the Supreme Court recognized the important work of Catholic Social Services and has allowed me to continue fostering children most in need of a loving home.” 

“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,” Fulton said.

“Our foster-care ministry in Philadelphia is vital to solving the foster care crisis and Catholic Social Services is a cornerstone of that ministry,” said Toni Simms-Busch, also a foster mom and named plaintiff in the case. “The Supreme Court’s decision ensure the most vulnerable children in the City of Brotherly Love have every opportunity to find loving homes.”

Philadelphia Archbishop Nelson Perez told reporters on a press call Thursday that the ruling is “a crystal clear affirmation of First Amendment rights for the Archdiocese of Philadelphia and all charitable ministries in the United States who are inspired by their faith to serve the most vulnerable among us.”

“Today’s ruling allows our ministries to continue serving those in need, for foster families to find an agency that shares and reflects their faith, and for foster children to find a loving home,” Perez said.

The city of Philadelphia had argued that the Catholic Social Services policy constituted discrimination, and violated its nondiscrimination ordinance. In 2018, it said it would no longer work with the agency. As the city oversees all foster care placements, the work of the agency drastically diminished as the case proceeded in the courts, lawyers for Catholic Social Services argued. 

The high court on Thursday found that the decision violated the Free Exercise Clause of the First Amendment. The city had a nondiscrimination policy and granted individual exemptions to the policy, the court majority ruled; thus, they needed a “compelling reason” to not exempt Catholic Social Services for religious reasons.

Legal expert Ryan Anderson, president of the Ethics and Public Policy Center, told CNA that while the majority decision is not perfect, “A 9-0 win at the Supreme Court is not something to take lightly.” 

“Yes, the holding was likely narrower than it would have been had it been decided 5-4 or 6-3,” Anderson said, also noting that other questions remain “as far as the extent of the Constitutional protections for Americans who believe marriage unites husband and wife.”

“Still, the Court ruled unanimously in favor of the free exercise of Catholic Social Services of Philadelphia,” he said. “It ruled unanimously against the religious bigotry of the city of Philadelphia.”

“This is a big win for religious liberty and for all Americans who support the truth about marriage.”

Chief Justice John Roberts wrote in the majority opinion that “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.”

He added that the city’s demand the agency certify same-sex couples “cannot survive strict scrutiny, and violates the First Amendment.”

Diana Cortes, city solicitor for Philadelphia, said in a statement that the decision is “a difficult and disappointing setback for foster care youth and the foster parents who work so hard to support them.”   

“Allowing contractors and partners to set their own terms for how they provide public services will create a confusing patchwork in government programs and will weaken government non-discrimination guarantees,” Cortes said. 

Leslie Cooper, deputy director of the ACLU LGBTQ & HIV Project, argued in a statement that the court ruling was narrower than religious freedom advocates wanted, and “did not recognize a license to discriminate based on religious beliefs.”

Supporters of Catholic Social Services said that abiding by the Church’s teachings on marriage does not constitute discrimination.  

Catholic Charities USA on Thursday welcomed the court’s ruling.

“In their history, Catholic Charities agencies have enjoyed a cooperative partnership with government to work for the common good. Such cooperation has been predicated on valuing diverse perspectives and mutual respect. Hopefully, we will continue to work together to serve all people with dignity and respect,” the organization stated.

Kristen Waggoner, general counsel for Alliance Defending Freedom, said in a statement, “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,” Waggoner said. “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.”

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