Protecting Religious Freedom in the Culture and the Courtroom

June 22, 2021

At the heart of Fulton v. City of Philadelphia, decided by the Supreme Court last week, lay both principles and people who will be affected -- faith-based organizations, vulnerable children, and religious freedom itself. Thankfully, the Supreme Court unanimously voted to uphold the right of Catholic Social Services in Philadelphia to serve their community without violating their conscience.

Yet, this win isn't the end of the story for religious organizations across America. As former solicitor general Ken Starr told listeners on "Washington Watch" this week," "there will be another day and another fight."

In the Fulton case, the City of Philadelphia told Catholic Social Services that it had to violate its religious beliefs by placing foster children into the homes of unmarried or same-sex couples. Yet, many other foster care agencies in the city already served same-sex couples and no same-sex couple had even requested certification from Catholic Social Services. No one was being harmed by Catholic Social Services' religiously-informed policies, and many children from vulnerable communities were being helped.

Philadelphia's targeted attack on religious foster care services would have only done a disservice to the many minority children Catholic Social Services sought to assist. Rather than enforce compliance to a secular worldview, the city should be happy to allow a diversity of options among foster care agencies, including faith-based options.

What the City of Philadelphia tried to do was a violation of religious freedom. Thankfully, Ken Starr points out that, "For 40 years, with very few exceptions, the Supreme Court has been a friend of religious liberty and revers[ed] district courts and courts of appeals that have tended to go the other way following the lead of the culture."

It is encouraging to see the Supreme Court uphold the constitutional protection to religious freedom despite the increasing unpopularity of some religious beliefs in the prevailing culture. However, the culture does impact government, and that often extends to the courts. As such, religious freedom is not merely a topic for debates among lawyers, but a topic that is relevant to all Americans.

It's important to remember that it is not only the responsibility of the courts to protect our religious freedom. As citizens of a democracy, we have the ability to vote and to live our lives in a way that promotes a proper understanding of the basic freedoms our Founders secured for us in the Bill of Rights.

So, what can Americans do to build a culture that supports religious freedom?

Starr has a few ideas: "Let's blow the whistle when religious liberty is under assault. Let's do the work that I think we've been called upon to do. I like to call upon the Apostle Paul's example in the Book of Acts; he was willing to litigate. We shouldn't be litigating against brothers and sisters, but we can litigate against the culture. Doing this peacefully and winsomely, but also persuasively."

Americans of all religious and political persuasions have an interest in maintaining religious freedom because it protects those of all faiths. As Starr says, "We all are united by a fervent commitment to not our particular philosophy -- we're talking about a constitutional philosophy." And that is worth protecting.