The case may become the model for solving religious freedom disputes in other cities.
A three-year legal battle between the City of Philadelphia and Catholic Social Services ended in June, with the Supreme Court finding in favor of CSS. Now, the Archdiocese of Philadelphia has resumed placing children in need with foster families.
The case arose in 2018, when CSS was challenged for refusing to place children with same-sex or unmarried couples. Once the city decided to stop contracting with the Catholic organization, the Church filed the lawsuit, Fulton v. City of Philadelpha. The suit quickly became an important case regarding religious freedom.
In the June decision, the Court unanimously ruled that the city had overstepped its bounds. Since then, Philadelphia and Catholic Social Services have come to an undisclosed settlement, which allowed CSS to continue their work as of September 24, 2021. In June, The Philadelphia Inquirer reported comments from Archbishop of Philadelphia Nelson J. Pérez:
“It is my personal hope that today’s decision makes it abundantly clear that religious ministries cannot be forced to abandon their beliefs as the price for ministering to those in need,” he said in a statement.
According to Catholic News Service, the Supreme Court issued a permanent injunction to prevent the city from declining diocese contracts over religious belief or practice. A permanent injunction would require another run through the legal system to challenge. Justice Samuel Alito, however, warned that the city could negate the ruling by adjusting city policy. Alito wrote in the decision:
“This decision might as well be written on dissolving paper sold in magic shops. If the city wants to get around today’s decision, it can simply eliminate the never-used exemption power. … Then voilà, today’s decision will vanish — and the parties will be back where they started.”
Despite these concerns, Philadelphia willingly entered into an agreement with CSS that will allow it to resume operations. Lori Windham, senior counsel at The Becket Fund for Religious Liberty, hailed the decision. She suggested that the agreement is a renewal of the positive relationship between the city and the church, one that has benefited foster children for over 100 years.
Windham also noted to CNS that the case gives hope to Catholic institutions in other cities experiencing the same project. She mused that this decision could help solve similar religious freedom disputes. Windham said:
“I think that this should be a model for those other situations, because it shows how you can resolve those cases and allow Catholic charities to continue serving children.”