Narrow Supreme Court Ruling for Catholic Social Services in Philadelphia Leaves Fundamental Principles of Fairness and Nondiscrimination Intact

June 17, 2021 (WASHINGTON, D.C.) – The Supreme Court today issued a narrow and limited ruling for Catholic Social Services in Fulton v. City of Philadelphia 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.

Mary L. Bonauto, GLAD Civil Rights Project Director, issued the following statement in response to the ruling:

“While the Court found in favor of Catholic Social Services on an unusual feature of Philadelphia’s contract for services, today’s decision is narrow, and does not create a broad free exercise exemption from nondiscrimination laws. Our nondiscrimination laws are in place to ensure equal protection and access for everyone, including in vital taxpayer-funded social services like foster care, homeless shelters and food pantries. As the Court said, this is a “weighty interest,” including with regard to protections for LGBTQ people. Here the Court found only that Philadelphia’s inclusion of a formal system of entirely discretionary exceptions” made the contract’s nondiscrimination provision unenforceable as to CSS. CSS’s desire to deny screening to same-sex couples is a disheartening reminder of the discrimination LGBTQ adults and young people still face even within a system charged with protecting vulnerable youth and families. We are encouraged by the many faith-based social services agencies who would rather serve everyone than exclude some. Congress also has an opportunity to act on this shared value and the wishes of the overwhelming majority of Americans, by passing the Equality Act to ensure clear and explicit protections from discrimination for LGBTQ people in vital social services and every area of life.”