Catholic agency tailors promoting religion; “Religious freedom” or “discrimination”?
WASHINGTON – A key, unanimous Supreme Court decision on religious freedom has earned praise from Orthodox Jewish groups, and liberal groups breathe a sigh of relief that its scope is narrow.
On June 17, the court issued a 9-0 decision overturning Philadelphia’s policy of refusing to work with a Catholic agency that will not place children in foster care with same-sex parents.
Jewish groups had filed friend of the court briefs on both sides of the case, known as Fulton v. City of Philadelphia.
Orthodox groups, motivated by concerns about religious freedom, sided with Catholic social services.
“Today’s landmark decision by the United States Supreme Court is of critical importance to the American Orthodox Jewish community,” Nathan Diament, director of the Orthodox Union in Washington, said in a statement.
“As a minority faith community in the United States, strong legal protection for religious practice is an existential issue for us. The Orthodox Union had joined a list of Christian groups defending the agency.
Liberal Jewish and civil rights groups have expressed disappointment, but also relief that the court’s ruling is narrow.
“This Supreme Court ruling is a devastating loss for Philadelphia foster children, who are harmed when the religious beliefs of government-funded agencies trump the best interests of the children,” said a statement from the National Council of Jewish Women, one of several groups to file a joint brief on behalf of Philadelphia.
TThe case had been seen as a turning point in which the tribunal could achieve a landslide victory for the religious right by overturning a 1990 ruling that allows the government to restrict certain religious practices as long as the government’s intention is not discriminatory.
Instead, the ruling in Fulton was careful not to overturn decades of precedent, potentially allowing three Liberal justices to sign, even though three Tory justices criticized the ruling for its timidity in a concurring opinion.
The majority opinion was drafted by Chief Justice John Roberts, who recently worked to preserve the court’s reputation as being above politics in a polarized society.
Roberts wrote that because selection criteria vary among Philadelphia employment agencies, because the city allowed exemptions to its policies, and because 27 other same-sex parent placement options were available in Philadelphia, the The Catholic agency could keep its policy.
Distinguishing the Catholic agency for its specific criteria was discriminatory.
“As long as the government can achieve its interests in a way that does not weigh on religion, it must do so,” Roberts wrote.
This finding has comforted Orthodox groups who, like Catholic Social Services, may view demands to serve same-sex parents as undermining their religious beliefs.
“The Philadelphia policy excluded religious agencies from the foster care system unless they were willing to openly violate their religious beliefs, and children who needed caring families paid the price,” the Coalition said. for Jewish Values in a press release.
Agudath Israel of America, who led a group of Orthodox groups in a court friend’s brief, greeted the decision with reservations, noting that its narrow scope has failed to bring about the changes that conservative organizations and nuns hoped to happen.
“We are delighted that the court has ruled that the city of Philadelphia has violated the rights to exercise freely CSS,” said Rabbi Chaim Dovid Zwiebel, executive vice president of the group.
“But we are disappointed that the court did not use this opportunity to overturn Employment Division v. Smith. We can only hope that the court will reconsider Smith soon, which has had a negative impact on religious freedom in America. “
TThe 1990 Smith decision, upholding Oregon’s right to deny unemployment benefits to Native Americans who had been fired for ingesting peyote as part of a religious ritual, ruled that a government can enforce laws that effectively discriminate against a religious practice as long as the laws do not specifically target religious practice. Two conservative justices of the court, in keeping with Roberts’ ruling, said it should have gone further and overturned Smith.
OU’s Diament said in an interview that he too had hoped Smith would be overturned, but that a unanimous decision encompassing the court’s three liberal judges was no small feat.
“With a 9-0 First Amendment very categorically ruling that religious freedom is of the highest constitutional value, we consider a fairly clear victory,” he said.
Jewish groups that supported Philadelphia expressed disappointment but also noted with relief that Roberts had ruled narrowly and had not touched Smith.
The ADL, which led an amicus brief including Bend the Arc, Jewish Women International, Keshet, NCJW and T’ruah, said the decision underscored the urgency of passing bills under consideration that remove limits on LGBTQ people seeking to adopt or foster children. .
“Although this is a very restrictive decision, we must not lose sight of the fact that discrimination is creeping into the child protection system across the country,” ADL said. in a press release.
In 2018, the ADL supported a Jewish family in South Carolina who was blocked by a state-sanctioned agency from making a placement because of their faith.
The reformist movement, separately, said it too was disappointed with the decision, but stressed that it did not give agencies a broad right to discriminate.
“We continue to argue that social service providers should not be allowed to choose who to serve when receiving government funding, as allowing discrimination to replace the provision of social services will put lives at risk and harm the most vulnerable. “he said in a statement.