Fixing the Cracks in Philly's Liberty Bail

June 17, 2021

For Sharonell Fulton, it was her faith that led her to become a foster mom in the first place. "As a single woman of color," she said, "I've learned a thing about discrimination over the years." But never in her life, she tells people, has she experienced the kind of cruel religious prejudice that's been on display from Philadelphia's politicians. When the city tried to shut down Catholic Social Services for believing what the Bible says about marriage, she was speechless. What kind of people would be more concerned with an intolerant agenda than they are about children? Not the nine justices of the U.S. Supreme Court, it turns out. Today, they sent a unanimous message to the city of un-brotherly love: Stand down!

As far as local Leftists were concerned, it was worth shutting down the largest and most effective adoption and foster care agency in the state to make a political point. The Supreme Court disagreed, ruling that the city can't sideline ministries just because they have biblical values. "...[That] imposes a burden on CSS's religious exercise," the justices agreed, and, as far as they're concerned, the city "offers no compelling reason" why it treats the Catholic group differently than other groups. Justice Samuel Alito, in his concurring opinion, has a good guess. Clearly, he writes, the "fundamental objective of city officials is to force the Philadelphia Archdiocese to change its position on marriage."

Their ultimatum, Alito writes, is this: "Either engage in conduct that the church views as contrary to the traditional Christian understanding of marriage or abandon a mission that dates back to the earliest days of the church." That's unacceptable, he agrees. The organization is only asking for an accommodation to keep serving the children of Philadelphia in a way that's comparable with their religious beliefs. "It does not," the justices point out, "seek to impose those beliefs on anyone else." In fact, if anyone's trying to impose their beliefs on another, it's intolerant city officials! This entire court battle is the result of woke city officials wanting to strong-arm Christians into embracing their radicalism -- at the expense of children who've just lost everything and everyone they know. That's not an anti-discrimination policy, the justices point out, that's a violation of the First Amendment.

Unfortunately for Christian adoption services everywhere, the court didn't take the opportunity to say much more than that. Instead of applying this decision across the board and finally drawing a bright line in the battle between religious freedom and the LGBT revolution, the court sidestepped the question altogether. Noticeably frustrated, Alito warns that their inaction could continue to put Philadelphia's groups -- and many others -- at risk. "This decision might as well be written on the dissolving paper sold in magic shops," he vented. "The city has been adamant about pressuring CSS to give in, and if the city wants to get around today's decision, it can simply eliminate the never-used exemption power. If it does that, then, voilà, today's decision will vanish -- and the parties will be back where they started."

"This case," he argues, "presents an important constitutional question that urgently calls out for review: whether this court's governing interpretation of a bedrock constitutional right, the right to the free exercise of religion, is fundamentally wrong and should be corrected." The fate of tens of thousands of children, Alito says, is largely in the hands of organizations just like this one: private and religious charitable organizations. We aren't doing them any favors, he argues, by not providing clearer direction. Cities like Philadelphia don't care that CSS has never "interfered in the slightest with the efforts of a same-sex couple to care for a foster child," he writes. Or that a same-sex couple has never approached the group about fostering. Or that the city's other 28 adoption agencies are happy to place children in non-traditional homes. "None of that mattered to Philadelphia," Alito explained. What mattered to them was punishing non-conformists. And that will continue to happen, he insists, until the court steps up and defends America's "deep-rooted commitment to religious liberty."

Harkening back to Obergefell, Alito reminds his colleagues that "the majority made a commitment." "[I]t promised that 'religions, and those who adhere to religious doctrines, may continue to advocate with utmost, sincere conviction that, by divine precepts, same-sex marriage should not be condoned.'" Today's ruling was a chance to live up to that promise and provide the broad protections that Christian ministries and Catholic services have been waiting for. Instead, the court issued another opinion that's a win for religious freedom, but a lost opportunity to do more.

Religious groups across the country deserve the "fresh look" at the Free Exercise Clause that Alito calls for. "Only we can fix [this]," Justice Neil Gorsuch agreed. "Dodging the question today guarantees it will recur tomorrow. These cases will keep coming until the Court musters the fortitude to supply an answer. Respectfully, it should have done so today."

Are we grateful for the decision? Absolutely. At least for now, foster moms like Sharonell can go back to pouring love and compassion into the lives of children who desperately need it. But we continue to pray for a day when Christians across America have the freedom to minister and serve as Scripture compels them.