Even as we have been waiting for the results of the presidential election, the U.S. Supreme Court heard a case yesterday that will determine whether taxpayer-funded foster care and adoption agencies—and possibly any provider of government-contracted services—can cite religious beliefs as a reason to discriminate against LGBTQ people and others. Here are some of the arguments made.

U.S. Supreme Court

For detailed background on the case, Fulton v. City of Philadelphia, I refer you to my piece from last week. In short, it began in 2018, when the City of Philadelphia stopped referring foster children to Catholic Social Services (CSS) because the agency would not license qualified same-sex couples to be foster or adoptive parents. CSS then brought a lawsuit in federal district court, which ruled for the city, as did an appeals court. CSS appealed to the Supreme Court, which took the case in February 2020. In June, the Trump administration filed a brief siding with CSS.

Yesterday, in front of a court that included the newly seated Amy Coney Barrett, lawyers for both CSS and the city presented their cases. All of the justices pushed on the question of whether CSS, in taking the city’s contract, was doing the city’s work or doing its own work and simply being licensed by the city. If the latter, the city would have less authority to enforce its nondiscrimination laws.

Justice Sonia Sotomayor pointed out that the city was paying CSS, and the government does not pay entities to take a license. Justice Stephen Breyer noted that the city isn’t asking CSS to endorse marriage for same-sex couples, merely that they meet the statutory requirements to be foster parents.

Prompted by more conservative Justices Samuel Alito and Brett Kavanaugh, however, CSS claimed that no same-sex couple had ever applied to the agency. If they had, it said, they would simply have been referred to another agency. CSS also emphasized its 200-year history of providing services to children and families and said the city was targeting it because of its religion.

Attorney Neal Katyal, arguing for the city, said it is not targeting CSS because of its religious beliefs, but because there are no exemptions to the city’s nondiscrimination laws. This isn’t a matter of religion versus LGBTQ rights, they said, but rather of religion versus religion. A ruling in favor of CSS could mean that people are turned away from government services because of their religion.

Alito, however, seemed to side with CSS in opining that the city wasn’t actually trying to ensure that same-sex couples could be foster parents, but that it simply “can’t stand the message that Catholic Social Services and the Archdiocese are sending by continuing to adhere to the old-fashioned view about marriage.”

CSS also argued to overturn the 1990 Supreme Court case Employment Division v. Smith, in which former Justice Antonin Scalia, writing for the majority, said that Free Exercise Clause of the Constitution, which permits freedom of religion, does not mean that there are exemptions from “a neutral, generally applicable law” that is “not specifically directed to religious practice.” It was hard to tell if the justices seemed interested in overturning Smith, however.

Additionally, Hashim Moopan, a Justice Department lawyer arguing for CSS, said that the city does permissibly consider race or disability in placing children with foster parents. Why can’t it also consider sexual orientation? The city’s lawyers countered that there was a difference between child placements and the screening of potential parents, and it is the latter, where there are no exceptions, at issue here. When asked if CSS’ position of allowing exemptions to nondiscrimination laws could lead to discrimination on the basis of race, Moopan indicated that it wouldn’t, leading Breyer to ask whether “discrimination on the basis of race is different from discrimination based on gender, religion, and sexuality.” Moopan responded that “Race is unique in this country’s constitutional history,” and that eradicating racial discrimination “presents a particularly unique and compelling interest.” When pushed by Justice Elena Kagan on whether it is a compelling state interest to eradicate discrimination against gays and lesbians, he equivocated.

Alito seemed to side with the idea that racial discrimination and discrimination against same-sex couples are fundamentally different, citing Obergefell v. Hodges, the 2015 decision that legalized marriage for same-sex couples. “Didn’t we say in Obergefell that there are honorable reasons to continue to oppose same-sex marriage?” he asked. (The Obergefell decision, written by former Justice Anthony Kennedy, does indeed say, “Many who deem same-sex marriage to be wrong reach that conclusion based on decent and honorable religious or philosophical premises, and neither they nor their beliefs are disparaged here.”)

Justice Brett Kavanaugh also brought up this point in Obergefell, and told the city’s lawyers that while he understood the “stigmatic harm” of CSS’ policy on same-sex couples, “What I fear here is that the absolutist and extreme position that you’re articulating would require us to go back on the promise of respect for religious believers.”

Overall, the justices seemed split along ideological lines, although Chief Justice John Roberts’ thinking was less clear. The newest justice, Barrett, while she didn’t seem eager to overturn Smith, at one point tried to get Katyal to respond to a hypothetical situation in which a city has taken over all health care and contracts with private entities to provide it. Must a Catholic hospital then perform abortions? Katyal replied that the current case does not involve a government monopoly of previously private services, and that the government takeover of a private care system in itself raises constitutional problems.

Depending on how the court rules, the case could have far-reaching implications beyond just child services, as I explained last week. What’s next? Now we wait—even longer than for the outcome of the presidential election. A decision is expected by the end of the court’s current term next June.

H/t to C-SPAN and to ACLU lawyers Chase Strangio and Josh Block, who live tweeted the hearing.