Fulton v. City of Philadelphia
UPDATE: On June 17, 2021, the Supreme Court issued a narrow and limiting ruling for Catholic Social Services that focuses on specific contractual language. The ruling leaves intact the broader principle that governments can require contractors, including religious agencies, to comply with nondiscrimination laws – including those that protect same-sex married couples – when providing taxpayer-funded social services. While the Court found Philadelphia’s contract with CSS to be unenforceable, it did so because the contract allowed individual discretionary exemptions on a case-by-base basis but would not consider CSS’s claim. The case stemmed from a claim by Catholic Social Services that it should have been allowed to decline to work with same-sex couples when providing foster care placement services under contract with the City of Philadelphia. Read GLAD’s full statement.
In 2018, the City of Philadelphia suspended a contract with Catholic Social Services (“CSS”) to provide foster care placement services because the agency refused to work with married same-sex couples and unmarried couples, violating Philadelphia’s nondiscrimination ordinance. CSS sued the city, claiming, among other things, that the City’s actions violated its rights of free exercise of religion. Seeking an injunction* against the City, CSS lost in the federal trial court and then again on appeal. The case was heard by the Supreme Court on November 4, 2020 (audio available here).
Fulton is poised to be a landmark case on the question of whether religiously-based social welfare organizations that receive taxpayer dollars through local government contracts can be exempt from the government’s nondiscrimination laws. There is a possibility that a decision in Fulton could come to mean that nearly any religious entity, or even a private company asserting its religious beliefs, would have permission to refuse to serve or work with anyone simply because of who they are.
So many people rely on government-funded entities like CSS to fulfill essential needs — for food, housing, health care, and more. This case could lay the foundation for the reversal of protections on which the most vulnerable in our community rely to ensure equal access to goods and services. It could also require the government at all levels to fund discriminatory groups. That’s why GLAD, joined by 27 other national, regional, and state LGBTQ advocacy organizations, filed a friend-of-the-court brief on August 20, 2020 in support of the City of Philadelphia’s position, urging the U.S. Supreme Court not to introduce a broad exemption to nondiscrimination laws that would undermine Constitutional equal protection guarantees and introduce a dangerous and unworkable scheme into local, state, and federal lawmaking.