U.S. Supreme Court backs Catholic group that shunned gay foster parents

By Lawrence Hurley and Andrew Chung

WASHINGTON (Reuters) -The U.S. Supreme Court embraced religious rights over LGBT rights on Thursday by ruling in favor of a Catholic Church-affiliated agency that sued after Philadelphia refused to place children for foster care with the organization because it barred same-sex couples from applying to become foster parents.

The 9-0 ruling, written by conservative Chief Justice John Roberts, was a victory for Catholic Social Services (CSS), part of the Archdiocese of Philadelphia, and represented the latest instance of the Supreme Court taking an expansive view of religious rights under the U.S. Constitution.

The justices decided that Philadelphia’s refusal to use Catholic Social Services for foster care services unless it agreed to certify same-sex couples as foster parents violated the Constitution’s First Amendment guarantee of the free exercise of religion.

Catholic Social Services argued that Philadelphia had penalized it for its religious views and for following church teachings on marriage.

In the ruling, Roberts wrote, “CSS seeks only an accommodation that will allow it to continue serving the children of Philadelphia in a manner consistent with its religious beliefs; it does not seek to impose those beliefs on anyone else.”

Conservative and religious advocacy rights groups cheered the decision – and the fact that the court’s three liberal members joined the six conservative justices – saying it will have a major impact on future legal disputes involving religious beliefs.

“This is a strong ruling in favor of religious freedom, especially for social services providers,” said Lori Windham, a lawyer for the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty, which represented the agency and three foster parents in the case. “The court recognized that it is not the government’s place to exclude religious agencies because of their religious beliefs.”

“I am grateful that we can finally rest knowing that the agency that has brought my family together can continue to do the same for other families,” said Toni Lynn Simms-Bush, who has served as a foster parent through Catholic Social Services and was one of the plaintiffs.

‘SELECTIVE ASSESSMENT’

The justices decided that foster care certification provided by Catholic Social Services did not fall under the city’s anti-discrimination ordinance because it is a service not “readily available” to the public.

“It involves a customized and selective assessment that bears little resemblance to staying in a hotel, eating at a restaurant or riding a bus,” Roberts wrote.

The Supreme Court declined to take even-broader action in the form of overruling its 1990 precedent that upheld “generally applicable” laws even if they curb religious freedom. Conservative Justices Samuel Alito, Clarence Thomas and Neil Gorsuch said the court should have overruled that precedent.

LGBT and other liberal advocacy groups called the ruling troubling but said they were relieved it did not go further.

“Foster care is a government function, and all governments have a compelling interest in ensuring their contract agencies, including faith-based ones, treat all children and families equally. And today’s ruling does mean, at least for now, that different-sex married couples have access to all city agencies, while same-sex couples do not,” M. Currey Cook of the Lambda Legal pro-LGBT rights group said.

Catholic Social Services, which has helped provide foster care services for more than a century, had said it would be compelled to close its foster care operations if it was barred from Philadelphia’s program.

Philadelphia in 2018 suspended foster care referrals to Catholic Social Services after a newspaper report about the organization’s policy against same-sex couples as foster parents, leading the agency to file suit. Catholic Social Services said Philadelphia’s action meant that available foster homes were sitting empty amid a foster care crisis in the city of about 1.5 million people.

The Philadelphia-based 3rd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in 2019 ruled against Catholic Social Services, saying it had not shown that the city had treated it differently because of its religious affiliation. U.S. District Judge Petrese Tucker in 2018 also ruled against the organization.

Eleven of the 50 states currently allow private agencies to refuse to place children with same-sex couples, according to the Movement Advancement Project, a group backing gay rights.

The Supreme Court in recent years has sent mixed messages on the conflict between LGBT and religious rights.

It backed gay rights in a series of landmark rulings including a 2015 decision legalizing same-sex marriage nationwide and a 2020 ruling that a federal law barring workplace discrimination protects gay and transgender employees.

It also bolstered religious rights in several decisions including a 2014 ruling that let owners of businesses raise religious objections against the government.

No same-sex couple ever sought certification as a foster parent from Catholic Social Services. In addition to same-sex couples, it also will not certify unmarried couples as foster parents, but does not object to certifying individual gay people.

(Reporting by Lawrence Hurley; Editing by Will Dunham)

Major rulings including Obamacare loom for U.S. Supreme Court

By Lawrence Hurley

WASHINGTON (Reuters) -The U.S. Supreme Court heads into the last month of its current term with several major cases yet to be decided including a Republican bid to invalidate the Obamacare healthcare law, a dispute involving LGBT and religious rights and another focused on voting restrictions.

The court, which has a 6-3 conservative majority, now has 24 cases in total left to decide after issuing two rulings on Tuesday. There also is speculation about the potential retirement of its oldest justice, Stephen Breyer. Some liberal activists have urged Breyer, who is 82 and has served on the court since 1994, to step down so President Joe Biden can appoint a younger liberal jurist to a lifetime post on the court.

In the most notable of Tuesday’s decisions, the court unanimously endorsed the authority of Native American tribal police to stop and detain non-Native Americans on tribal land.

The court’s nine-month term starts in October and generally concludes by the end of June, though last year it continued into July because of delays caused by the COVID-19 pandemic.

Speaking during an online event for students on Friday, Breyer hinted at the court’s complex deliberations that go into deciding high-stakes cases at this time of year.

“It’s complicated by the fact that you are dealing with eight other colleagues. … You’d better be willing to compromise,” Breyer said.

Republican-governed states have asked the court to strike down the Affordable Care Act, a law signed in 2010 by Democratic former President Barack Obama that has helped expand healthcare access in the United States even as Republicans call it a government overreach.

It appears unlikely based on November’s oral arguments that the court would take such a drastic step. But if the Obamacare law were to be struck down, up to 20 million Americans could lose their medical insurance and insurers could once again refuse to cover people with pre-existing medical conditions. Obamacare expanded public healthcare programs and created marketplaces for private insurance.

Another major case yet to be decided is one that pits religious rights against LGBT rights as the justices weigh Philadelphia’s refusal to let a Catholic Church-affiliated group participate in the city’s foster care program because it would not accept same-sex couples as prospective foster parents.

The conservative justices appeared during the November arguments in the case to be sympathetic toward the Catholic group’s claim that its religious rights under the U.S. Constitution’s First Amendment had been violated. The court’s conservative majority has taken an expansive view of religious rights and has spearheaded several rulings backing churches in challenges to COVID-19 pandemic-related restrictions.

With various states enacting new Republican-backed voting restrictions in the aftermath of former President Donald Trump’s false claims that the 2020 election was stolen from him through widespread voting fraud, the court is preparing to rule in a case concerning Arizona voting limits.

Republican proponents of Arizona’s restrictions cite the need to combat voting fraud. A ruling upholding the restrictions could further undermine the Voting Rights Act, a landmark 1965 federal law that prohibits racial discrimination in voting.

The court also is getting ready to decide a closely watched case involving the free speech rights of public school students. It involves whether a high school that punished a cheerleader for a foul-mouthed social media post made off campus on a weekend violated her free speech rights under the First Amendment.

The court has taken up major cases on gun and abortion rights for its next term, which begins in October.

(Reporting by Lawrence Hurley; Editing by Will Dunham)

U.S. Supreme Court backs Christian baker who rebuffed gay couple

FILE PHOTO: Baker, Jack Phillips, decorates a cake in his Masterpiece Cakeshop in Lakewood, Colorado U.S., on September 21, 2017. REUTERS/Rick Wilking/File Photo

By Lawrence Hurley

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – The U.S. Supreme Court on Monday handed a victory on narrow grounds to a Colorado baker who refused based on his Christian beliefs to make a wedding cake for a gay couple, stopping short of setting a major precedent allowing people to claim religious exemptions from anti-discrimination laws.

The justices, in a 7-2 decision, said the Colorado Civil Rights Commission showed an impermissible hostility toward religion when it found that baker Jack Phillips violated the state’s anti-discrimination law by rebuffing gay couple David Mullins and Charlie Craig in 2012. The state law bars businesses from refusing service based on race, sex, marital status or sexual orientation.

The court concluded that the commission violated Phillips’ religious rights under the U.S. Constitution’s First Amendment.

But the justices did not issue a definitive ruling on the circumstances under which people can seek exemptions from anti-discrimination laws based on religion. The decision also did not address important claims raised in the case including whether baking a cake is a kind of expressive act protected by the Constitution’s free speech guarantee.

Two of the court’s four liberals, Stephen Breyer and Elena Kagan, joined the five conservative justices in the ruling authored by Justice Anthony Kennedy, who also wrote the landmark 2015 decision legalizing gay marriage nationwide.

The baker case became a cultural flashpoint in the United States, underscoring the tensions between gay rights proponents and conservative Christians.

Both sides claimed a measure of victory. The couple’s supporters noted that the ruling embraced the importance of gay rights and made it clear that businesses open to the public must serve everyone. The baker’s lawyers said the ruling emphasized that the government must respect religious beliefs.

“It’s hard to believe that the government punished me for operating my business consistent with my beliefs about marriage. That isn’t freedom or tolerance,” Phillips said in a statement.

“Today’s decision means our fight against discrimination and unfair treatment will continue,” Mullins and Charlie Craig said in a statement. “We have always believed that in America, you should not be turned away from a business open to the public because of who you are.”

Seventy-two percent of U.S. adults believe that businesses should not have the right on religious grounds to deny services to customers based on their sexual orientation, a Reuters/Ipsos opinion poll released on Monday showed.

“Our society has come to the recognition that gay persons and gay couples cannot be treated as social outcasts or as inferior in dignity and worth,” Kennedy wrote.

But Kennedy said the state commission’s hostility toward religion “was inconsistent with the First Amendment’s guarantee that our laws be applied in a manner that is neutral toward religion.”

In one exchange at a 2014 hearing before the commission cited by Kennedy, former commissioner Diann Rice said that “freedom of religion, and religion, has been used to justify all kinds of discrimination throughout history, whether it be slavery, whether it be the Holocaust.”

Kennedy said the commission ruled the opposite way in three cases brought against bakers in which the business owners refused to bake cakes containing messages that demeaned gay people or same-sex marriage.

SESSIONS HAILS RULING

Republican President Donald Trump’s administration, which intervened in the case in support of Phillips, welcomed the ruling. “The First Amendment prohibits governments from discriminating against citizens on the basis of religious beliefs,” Attorney General Jeff Sessions said in a statement.

The decision made it clear that even if the court ultimately rules in a future case that bakers or other businesses that sell creative products such as florists and wedding photographers can avoid punishment under anti-discrimination laws, most businesses open to the public would have no such defense.

Of the 50 states, 21 including Colorado have anti-discrimination laws protecting gay people.

The case marked a test for Kennedy, who has authored significant rulings that advanced gay rights but also is a strong advocate for free speech rights and religious freedom.

“The outcome of cases like this in other circumstances must await further elaboration in the courts, all in the context of recognizing that these disputes must be resolved with tolerance, without undue disrespect to sincere religious beliefs, and without subjecting gay persons to indignities when they seek goods and services in an open market,” Kennedy wrote.

In a written dissent, Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, joined by fellow liberal Sonia Sotomayor, said what mattered was that Phillips would not provide a good or service to a same-sex couple that he would provide to a heterosexual couple.

The litigation, along with similar cases around the country, was part of a conservative Christian backlash to the Supreme Court’s gay marriage ruling.

Mullins and Craig were planning their wedding in Massachusetts in 2012 and wanted the cake for a reception in Colorado, where gay marriage was not yet legal. During a brief encounter at Phillips’ Masterpiece Cakeshop in the Denver suburb of Lakewood, the baker politely but firmly refused, leaving the couple distraught.

They filed a successful complaint with the state commission and state courts sided with the couple, prompting Phillips to appeal to the top U.S. court.

Mullins and Craig said Phillips was using his Christian faith as pretext for unlawful discrimination based on sexual orientation. Phillips and others like him who believe that gay marriage is inconsistent with their Christian beliefs have said they should not be required to effectively endorse the practice.

“Government hostility toward people of faith has no place in our society, yet the state of Colorado was openly antagonistic toward Jack’s religious beliefs about marriage. The court was right to condemn that,” said lawyer Kristen Waggoner of the conservative Christian group Alliance Defending Freedom, which represented Phillips.

The court will soon have the opportunity to signal its approach to handling similar cases. The justices on Thursday will consider whether to hear an appeal by a Washington state flower shop owner who refused to create a floral arrangement to celebrate a gay wedding, based on her Christian beliefs.

(Reporting by Lawrence Hurley; Additional reporting by Andrew Chung; Editing by Will Dunham)

U.S. top court backs church in key religious rights case

Activists rally outside U.S. Supreme Court after the Court sided with Trinity Lutheran Church, which objected to being denied public money in Missouri, in Washington, U.S.,

By Lawrence Hurley

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – The U.S. Supreme Court on Monday sided with a church that objected to being denied public money in Missouri, potentially lessening America’s separation of church and state by allowing governments more leeway to fund religious entities directly.

The justices, in a 7-2 ruling, found that Missouri unlawfully prevented Trinity Lutheran Church access to a state grant program that helps nonprofit groups buy rubber playground surfaces made from recycled tires.

Conservative Chief Justice John Roberts, writing for the majority, said that the exclusion of the church “solely because it is a church, is odious to our Constitution.”

In denying the church’s bid for public funding, Missouri cited its constitution that bars “any church, sect or denomination of religion” or clergy member from receiving state money, language that goes further than the U.S. Constitution’s separation of church and state.

Trinity Lutheran, which runs a preschool and daycare center, wanted a safer surface for its playground. Its legal fight was led by the Alliance Defending Freedom conservative Christian legal advocacy group.

The dispute pitted two provisions of the U.S. Constitution’s First Amendment against each other: the guarantee of the free exercise of religion and the Establishment Clause, which requires the separation of church and state.

Trump signs order to ease ban on political activity by churches

U.S. President Donald Trump signs an Executive Order on Promoting Free Speech and Religious Liberty during the National Day of Prayer event at the Rose Garden of the White House in Washington D.C., U.S., May 4, 2017. REUTERS/Carlos Barria

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – U.S. President Donald Trump on Thursday signed an executive order on religious liberties designed to ease a ban on political activity by churches and other tax-exempt institutions.

The order also mandates regulatory relief to religious employers that object to contraception, such as Little Sisters of the Poor.

It does not include provisions to allow government agencies and businesses to deny services to gay people in the name of religious freedom, as was feared by some civil liberties and gay rights groups.

The American Civil Liberties Union said in a statement it would file a lawsuit challenging Trump’s order.

Trump, addressing religious leaders in a signing ceremony at the White House, said: “We will not allow people of faith to be targeted, bullied or silenced any more”.

“No one should be censoring sermons or targeting pastors,” he said.

Trump’s order directs the Internal Revenue Service to “alleviate the burden of the Johnson Amendment,” the White House said in reference to a 1954 law sponsored by Lyndon Johnson, then a Texas senator who later became president.

Under the tax code, organizations that enjoy tax-free status, such as churches, are prohibited from participating in a political campaign or supporting any one candidate for elective office.

This includes a ban on making financial contributions to campaigns and candidates, but the law does allow certain non-partisan political activity such as voter registration or get-out-the-vote drives.

Trump would need Congress to rescind the Johnson Amendment, but he can instruct his administration not to enforce it through executive order.

(Reporting by Ayesha Rascoe and Daniel Trotta; Editing by Susan Heavey and James Dalgleish)

U.S. justices lean toward church in key religious rights case

The Supreme Court is seen ahead of the Senate voting to confirm Judge Neil Gorsuch as an Associate Justice in Washington, DC, U.S. April 7, 2017. REUTERS/Aaron P. Bernstein

By Lawrence Hurley

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – The U.S. Supreme Court on Wednesday appeared poised to expand religious rights and potentially narrow the separation of church and state after liberal and conservative justices alike signaled support for a church denied Missouri taxpayer funds for a playground project.

A ruling in favor of Trinity Lutheran Church in Columbia, Missouri in the case, one of the most important of the court’s current term, could pave the way for more public money to go to religious entities.

Justices across the nine-member court’s ideological spectrum indicated that Trinity Lutheran should be allowed to apply for the Missouri grant program that helps nonprofit groups buy rubber playground surfaces made from recycled tires. The church runs a preschool and daycare center.

“It does seem as though this is a clear burden on a constitutional right,” liberal Justice Elena Kagan said during a one-hour argument, referring to Missouri’s prohibition.

A ruling is due by the end of June. It is unclear how far the justices will go in setting a precedent that would give states more leeway to fund religious entities directly.

The dispute pits two provisions of the U.S. Constitution’s First Amendment against each other: the guarantee of the free exercise of religion and the Establishment Clause, which requires the separation of church and state.

A broad ruling favoring the church could bolster religious conservatives who favor weakening the wall between church and state, including using taxpayer money to pay for children to attend private religious schools rather than public schools. President Donald Trump’s education secretary, Betsy DeVos, is a prominent supporter of such “school choice” plans.

Trinity Lutheran, whose legal effort was spearheaded by the Alliance Defending Freedom conservative Christian activist group, could be headed for a lopsided win, with liberals Kagan and Stephen Breyer joining conservative justices in signaling support.

Missouri’s constitution bars “any church, sect or denomination of religion” from receiving state money, language that goes further than the U.S. Constitution’s separation of church and state.

Breyer questioned whether denying churches access to the playground grant money would be akin to refusing to provide police or fire services.

“What’s the difference?” Breyer said.

FEDERAL GRANTS

Conservative Justice Samuel Alito said several federal grant programs are open to religious entities, including one that provides money to enhance security at buildings where there is a risk of terrorist attack.

Synagogues, mosques and religious schools have received funding under that program, according to a brief filed by a Jewish group supporting the church’s position.

Alito asked Missouri’s lawyer, James Layton, if religious entities would be barred from applying if Missouri had a similar program. Layton said they would be prohibited.

Trinity Lutheran argued that Missouri’s policy violates its right to exercise religion as well as the U.S. Constitution’s promise of equal protection under the law. Missouri has said there is nothing unconstitutional about its grant program, noting that Trinity Lutheran remains free to practice any aspect of its faith however it wishes despite being denied state funds.

The court’s newest justice, Trump’s conservative appointee Neil Gorsuch, is known for an expansive view of religious rights. Gorsuch asked Layton why it is acceptable for Missouri to ban religious entities in some instances, such as with the playground program, but not in others, including safety and health services.

Liberal Justice Sonia Sotomayor was the most outspoken in backing Missouri’s ban, noting the difficulty states could face determining whether funds going to a religious entity are being used for a secular purposes.

“How do you separate out its secular function from its religious function?” Sotomayor asked.

Three-quarters of the U.S. states have provisions similar to Missouri’s barring funding for religious entities.

Missouri’s Republican governor, Eric Greitens, last Thursday reversed the state policy that had banned religious entities from applying for the grant money, saying it was wrong for “government bureaucrats” to deny grants to “people of faith who wanted to do things like make community playgrounds for kids.”

Missouri and the church both urged the justices to decide the case anyway because of the important issues at play and because the governor’s action was not irreversible. The issue was discussed only briefly during Wednesday’s argument, suggesting the justices are eager to decide the case on the merits.

A Trinity Lutheran victory could help religious organizations nationwide win public dollars for certain purposes, such as health and safety. It also could buttress the case for using publicly funded vouchers to send children to religious schools.

A challenge to a 2015 court decision invalidating a Colorado voucher program is pending before the justices, awaiting the Trinity Lutheran case’s outcome.

Trinity Lutheran sued Missouri in federal court in 2012. The St. Louis-based 8th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in 2015 upheld a trial court’s dismissal of the suit, and the church appealed to the Supreme Court.

(Reporting by Lawrence Hurley; Additional reporting by Andrew Chung; Editing by Will Dunham)

U.S. top court to hear key religious rights case involving Missouri church

The Supreme Court is seen ahead of the Senate voting to confirm Judge Neil Gorsuch as an Associate Justice in Washington, DC, U.S. April 7, 2017. REUTERS/Aaron P. Bernstein

By Lawrence Hurley

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – The U.S. Supreme Court on Wednesday will hear a closely watched dispute over supplying taxpayer money to religious entities in which a church accuses Missouri of violating its religious rights by denying it state funds for a playground project.

The case, which examines the limits of religious freedom under the U.S. Constitution, is one of the most important before the court in its current term. It also marks the biggest test to date for the court’s newest justice, President Donald Trump’s appointee Neil Gorsuch.

The court’s conservative majority may be sympathetic to the church’s views. But there are questions over whether the nine justices will end up deciding the merits of the case after Missouri’s Republican governor, Eric Greitens, last Thursday reversed the state policy that banned religious entities from applying for the funds.

Even though Trinity Lutheran Church in Columbia, Missouri could now actually apply for money from the grant program that helps nonprofit groups buy rubber playground surfaces made from recycled tires, its lawyers and state officials asked the justices to decide the case anyway.

Trinity Lutheran runs a preschool and daycare center.

Missouri’s constitution bars “any church, sect or denomination of religion” from receiving state money, language that goes further than the Constitution’s First Amendment separation of church and state requirement.

Trinity Lutheran’s legal effort is being spearheaded by the Alliance Defending Freedom conservative Christian legal activist group, which contends that Missouri’s policy violates the U.S. Constitution’s guarantees of free exercise of religion and equal protection under the law.

In court papers, the state said the ban did not impose a burden on the church’s exercise of religion.

The American Civil Liberties Union and the advocacy group Americans United for the Separation of Church and State, which backed the state’s ban, asked the justices to drop the case, saying it is now moot following Greitens’ policy reversal.

A victory at the Supreme Court for Trinity Lutheran could help religious organizations nationwide win public dollars for certain purposes, such as health and safety. It also could buttress the case for using taxpayer money for vouchers to help pay for children to attend religious schools rather than public schools in “school choice” programs advocated by conservatives.

Three-quarters of the U.S. states have provisions similar to Missouri’s barring funding for religious entities.

Trinity Lutheran sued in federal court in 2012. The St. Louis-based 8th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in 2015 upheld a trial court’s dismissal of the suit, and the church appealed to the Supreme Court.

(Reporting by Lawrence Hurley; additional reporting by Andrew Chung; editing by Will Dunham)