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)

U.S. Senate blocks constitutional challenge to Trump impeachment trial

By David Morgan

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – The U.S. Senate voted 55-45 on Tuesday to block a Republican effort to upend plans for former President Donald Trump’s impeachment trial on a charge that he incited the deadly Jan. 6 assault on the U.S. Capitol.

In an early test of the Senate’s impeachment drive, five Republicans joined Democrats to reject a motion by Republican Senator Rand Paul that would have required the chamber to vote on whether the trial violates the U.S. Constitution.

Paul and other Republicans contend that the proceedings are unconstitutional because Trump left office last Wednesday and the trial will be overseen by Democratic Senator Patrick Leahy instead of U.S. Chief Justice John Roberts.

“This proceeding, which would try a private citizen and not a president, vice president or civil officer, violates the Constitution,” Paul told his fellow senators after they had been sworn in as jurors for the trial set to begin on Feb. 9.

Democratic Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer dismissed Paul’s argument as “flat-out wrong” and “a constitutional get-out-of-jail-free card” for presidents guilty of misconduct.

Most of the Senate’s 50 Republican lawmakers voted against a motion by Schumer to kill Paul’s proposal.

Paul had predicted that support for his move would show the Senate incapable of convicting Trump, which would require 67 votes. But some Republicans described Tuesday’s vote and the question of Trump’s guilt as separate matters.

There is a debate among scholars over whether the Senate can hold a trial for Trump now that he has left office. Many experts have said “late impeachment” is constitutional, arguing that presidents who engage in misconduct late in their terms should not be immune from the very process set out in the Constitution for holding them accountable.

The Constitution makes clear that impeachment proceedings can result in disqualification from holding office in the future, so there is still an active issue for the Senate to resolve, those scholars have said.

‘MATTER OF POLITICAL CONSEQUENCE’

Fellow Republican Senator Lisa Murkowski, who has been critical of Trump, rejected Paul’s move.

“My review of it has led me to conclude that it is constitutional, in recognizing that impeachment is not solely about removing a president, it is also a matter of political consequence,” Murkowski told reporters on Tuesday.

Murkowski joined fellow Republican Senators Mitt Romney, Susan Collins, Ben Sasse and Patrick Toomey in opposing Paul.

Trump is the only president to have been impeached by the House of Representatives twice and the first to face a trial after leaving power, with the possibility of being disqualified from future public office if convicted by two-thirds of the Senate.

At least 17 Republicans would need to join all 50 Democrats in the evenly divided Senate for Trump to be convicted, a two-thirds threshold that appears unlikely to be reached. Trump remains a powerful force among Republicans and his supporters have vowed to mount election challenges to lawmakers in the party who support conviction.

Although the Constitution calls on the chief justice to preside over presidential impeachment trials, a senator presides when the impeached is not the current president, a Senate source said. First elected to the chamber in 1974, Leahy, 80, is the most senior Democrat in the chamber and holds the title of Senate president pro tempore.

The nine House Democrats who will serve as prosecutors set the trial in motion on Monday by delivering the article of impeachment to the Senate.

(Reporting by David Morgan; Additional reporting by Jan Wolfe in Boston; Editing by Scott Malone, Alistair Bell and Peter Cooney)

Factbox: U.S. presidential election moves to the courts

WILMINGTON, Del. (Reuters) – With the U.S. presidential election between Republican President Donald Trump and Democratic challenger Joe Biden too close to call, the Trump campaign and Republicans turned to the courts to try to invalidate votes in Pennsylvania and block Michigan officials from counting ballots.

For the lawsuits to have any impact on the outcome, the election would have to come down to one or two states and hang on the outcome of a few thousand votes, which seemed unlikely, legal experts said.

Below is a list of the cases that will play out in the coming days and possibly weeks:

PENNSYLVANIA COURT BATTLES

The Trump campaign sued Pennsylvania’s Secretary of State Kathy Boockvar and county election officials to limit the time election officers have to contact mail-in voters to correct defects on their ballots.

The Commonwealth Court will hear the case on Friday.

A similar case in U.S. District Court in Philadelphia by Republican officials against election officials from Montgomery County got a skeptical reception from the federal judge.

The Republican officials on Thursday withdrew their request for an injunction.

The Trump campaign is also fighting Philadelphia election officials over observing vote counting in the city and was granted better access to the proceedings. An appeal is pending in the state’s supreme court.

Republicans in the state have also asked the U.S. Supreme Court to review a decision from the state’s highest court that allowed election officials to count mail-in ballots postmarked by Tuesday’s Election Day that are delivered through Friday.

On Wednesday, Trump’s campaign filed a motion to intervene in the case.

U.S. Supreme Court justices said last week there was not enough time to decide the merits of the case before Election Day but indicated they might revisit it afterwards.

Justice Samuel Alito, joined by fellow conservatives Clarence Thomas and Neil Gorsuch, said in a written opinion that there is a “strong likelihood” the Pennsylvania court’s decision violated the U.S. Constitution.

Pennsylvania election officials said they will segregate properly postmarked ballots that arrived after Election Day.

With about 92% of the vote counted, Trump led Biden in Pennsylvania with 50.2% of the vote to 48.5%, according to Edison Research.

MICHIGAN BALLOT-COUNTING FIGHT

Trump’s campaign on Wednesday filed a lawsuit in Michigan to stop state officials from counting ballots until it has an election inspector at each absentee-voter counting board. The campaign also wanted to review ballots that were opened and counted before an inspector from its campaign was present.

On Thursday, Michigan Court of Claims Judge Cynthia Stephens dismissed the case.

Biden was projected to win the state with 50.6% of the vote, with 99% of the expected vote in, according to Edison Research.

GEORGIA BALLOT FIGHT

The Trump campaign on Wednesday filed a lawsuit in state court in Chatham County that alleged late-arriving ballots were improperly mingled with valid ballots, and asked a judge to order late-arriving ballots be separated and not be counted.

The case was dismissed on Thursday.

Trump leads Biden 49.5% to 49.2% with 98% of Georgia’s expected votes counted, according to Edison Research.

NEVADA

Trump campaign officials said they planned to file a lawsuit in the state after alleging without evidence that thousands of improper votes were cast by dead people and by voters who were no longer residents of populous Clark County.

Biden leads Trump in Nevada 49.4% to 48.5% with 89% of the expected vote counted, according to Edison Research.

U.S. POSTAL SERVICE LITIGATION

A U.S. judge on Wednesday said Postmaster General Louis DeJoy must answer questions about why the U.S. Postal Service failed to complete a court-ordered sweep for undelivered ballots in about a dozen states before a Tuesday afternoon deadline.

U.S. District Judge Emmet Sullivan is overseeing a lawsuit by Vote Forward, the NAACP, and Latino community advocates who have been demanding the postal service deliver mail-in ballots in time to be counted in the election.

(Reporting by Tom Hals in Wilmington, Delaware; Editing by Kevin Liffey and Sonya Hepinstall)

Protesters sue Kenosha claiming arrests, curfew violate U.S. Constitution

By Keith Coffman

(Reuters) – Four people arrested for curfew violations while protesting the shooting of a Black man by a white policeman in Kenosha, Wisconsin sued the city and county governments on Tuesday, claiming they were denied free speech rights guaranteed by the U.S. Constitution.

The plaintiffs argue that more than 150 people protesting the shooting have been taken into custody while pro-police demonstrators have been allowed to freely take to the streets, according to the lawsuit filed in federal court for the Eastern District of Wisconsin.

“In Kenosha, there are two sets of laws – one that applies to those who protest police brutality and racism, and another for those who support the police,” the plaintiffs argue in their complaint, which seeks a temporary restraining order until the litigation can be heard in court.

Reuters could not reach city and county officials for comment after business hours.

Kenosha has been the scene of sometimes violent protests after video footage surfaced showing a police officer shooting Jacob Blake, 29, multiple times in the back.

Blake was left paralyzed from the waist down and the officer, Rusten Sheskey, was placed on administrative leave during an investigation.

The protesters claim in their lawsuit that police were using the curfew to prevent them from taking part in constitutionally protected activity.

The plaintiffs also say police are selectively enforcing the curfew by not arresting pro-police demonstrators, a violation of equal protection under the law guaranteed by the constitution.

The lawsuit, which seeks unspecified monetary damages, was filed on the same day that U.S. President Donald Trump visited Kenosha over the objections of some local officials.

(Reporting by Keith Coffman in Denver; Editing by Dan Whitcomb and Stephen Coates)

U.S. Supreme Court sidesteps major gun rights ruling

By Andrew Chung

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – The U.S. Supreme Court on Monday dismissed a challenge to New York City restrictions on handgun owners transporting their firearms outside the home, meaning the justices for now will not be wading into the battle over the scope of the right to bear arms under the U.S. Constitution’s Second Amendment.

The justices threw out the dispute at hand because the measure that was challenged by individual gun owners and the state’s National Rifle Association affiliate was rolled back by the city last July, rendering the case moot. The city had asked the Supreme Court not to hear the matter. The justices went ahead and heard arguments on Dec. 2 but ultimately agreed with the city.

The case was sent back to lower courts to determine whether the gun owners may seek damages or press claims that the amended law still infringes their rights. Justice Samuel Alito, in a dissent joined by fellow conservative Justices Clarence Thomas and Neil Gorsuch, said the case was not moot and that the city’s law ran afoul of the Second Amendment.

Although the New York case will no longer be decided, there are other challenges to gun regulations pending at the court. Conservative Justice Brett Kavanaugh, while agreeing the current dispute is moot, said in a concurring opinion that the court “should address that issue soon.”

President Donald Trump’s administration had supported the NRA and the gun owners in the case. The powerful lobby group is closely aligned with U.S. conservatives and Republicans including Trump.

Gun control proponents had feared that the justices would use the case to widen gun rights by either extending the right to possess firearms for self-defense beyond the home or by creating a strict standard that would force lower courts to cast a skeptical eye on new or existing gun control laws.

Such a ruling could have threatened a wide array of gun control measures nationwide such as expanded background checks for gun buyers and “red flag” laws targeting the firearms of people deemed dangerous by the courts, according to these advocates.

(Reporting by Andrew Chung in New York and Lawrence Hurley in Washington; Editing by Will Dunham)

U.S. Supreme Court agrees to hear Democratic bid to save Obamacare

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – The U.S. Supreme Court on Monday agreed to hear a politically explosive case on whether Obamacare is lawful, taking up a bid by 20 Democratic-led states to save the landmark healthcare law.

The impetus for the Supreme Court case was a 2018 ruling by a federal judge in Texas that Obamacare as currently structured in light of a key Republican-backed change made by Congress violates the U.S. Constitution and is invalid in its entirety. The ruling came in a legal challenge to the law by Texas and 17 other conservative states backed by President Donald Trump’s administration.

(Reporting by Lawrence Hurley; Editing by Will Dunham)

U.S. Supreme Court lets Flint, Michigan residents sue over water contamination

By Andrew Chung

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – The U.S. Supreme Court on Tuesday let residents of Flint, Michigan pursue a civil rights lawsuit against the city and government officials that accused them of knowingly allowing the city’s water supply to become contaminated with lead.

The justices turned away two appeals by the city and the state and local officials of a lower court ruling that allowed the lawsuit to move forward. The lower court rejected a demand for immunity by the officials, finding that they violated the residents’ right to “bodily integrity” under the U.S. Constitution by providing the tainted water after switching water sources in a cost-cutting move in 2014.

The justices’ action comes as similar class-action cases are currently on appeal at the Cincinnati, Ohio-based 6th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals.

Flint switched its public water source from Lake Huron to the Flint River to reduce costs during a financial crisis. The corrosive river water caused lead to leach from pipes.

Lead poisoning can stunt children’s cognitive development. No level of exposure is considered safe.

The city switched back to Lake Huron water the next year. The contaminated river water also triggered an outbreak of bacteria-caused Legionnaires’ disease, which killed 12 people and sickened dozens of others

Lawsuits over Flint’s water have proliferated in recent years. The number of people who have reported being harmed through exposure to contaminants in Flint, including lead and bacteria, or who experienced ailments such as rashes and hair loss, has reached more than 25,000, including more than 5,000 children under 12, according to court records.

The cases center on the Constitution’s 14th Amendment guarantee of due process under the law, which can protect people from government-induced harm to their personal security or health, a legal principle known as “bodily integrity.”

Courts have previously enforced the right to confront abuses of power in cases of direct physical intrusion, such as non-consensual medical procedures or forced drug administration.

The defendants argued that the lower courts have dangerously expanded that right by applying it to policy decisions that result in public exposure to environmental toxins. They also argued they are protected from the claims through a legal doctrine known as “qualified immunity” because they could not have known they could be held liable for “doing the best they could in difficult circumstances with limited information.”

The case before the justices was filed in 2016 by two Flint residents including Shari Guertin, who said that she and her child were exposed to high levels of lead.

Calling the water crisis a “government-created environmental disaster” in a 2019 ruling, the 6th Circuit green-lighted the constitutional claims and rejected immunity for the officials.

(Reporting by Andrew Chung; Editing by Will Dunham)

Trump rejects impeachment charges as an affront to U.S. Constitution

By Steve Holland

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – U.S. President Donald Trump on Monday rejected the Democratic-led House of Representatives’ impeachment charges, describing the allegations that he had abused his power and obstructed Congress as affronts to the U.S. Constitution that must be rejected.

“The Senate should speedily reject these deficient articles of impeachment and acquit the president,” an executive summary of the Republican president’s pre-trial brief said in Trump’s first comprehensive defense before the start of his Senate trial.

Trump, only the fourth of 45 American presidents to face the possibility of being ousted by impeachment, is charged with abusing the powers of his office by asking Ukraine to investigate a Democratic political rival, Joe Biden, and obstructing a congressional inquiry into his conduct.

The executive summary asserted that the “House Democrats theory of ‘abuse of power’ is not an impeachable offense.” It rejected the obstruction of Congress charge as frivolous and dangerous, saying the president exercised his legal rights by resisting congressional demands for information.

It accused the House Democrats of conducting a rigged process and said they succeeded in proving that Trump had done nothing wrong.

While the Republican-controlled Senate is highly unlikely to remove Trump from office, it is important for the Republican president to diminish the Democratic accusations as a partisan witch-hunt. He needs to limit the political damage to his re-election bid as he seeks a second term in November.

Trump’s legal team says he was well within his constitutional authority to press Ukraine President Volodymyr Zelenskiy last year to investigate Biden and his son Hunter as part of what Trump says was an anti-corruption drive. The Bidens deny any wrongdoing and Trump’s allegations have been widely debunked.

Democrats say Trump abused his power by withholding U.S. military assistance to Ukraine as part of a pressure campaign and obstructed Congress by refusing to hand over documents and barring administration officials from testifying, even when subpoenaed by House investigators.

Trump’s team says he is protected by the U.S. Constitution’s separation of powers provisions.

In a 111-page document filed before the Senate trial begins in earnest on Tuesday, Democratic lawmakers laid out their arguments against Trump, saying the president must be removed from office to protect national security and preserve the country’s system of government.

Seeking to show he is still conducting presidential business despite the trial, Trump is scheduled to depart late on Monday for Davos, Switzerland, to join global leaders at the World Economic Forum. Some advisers had argued against him making the trip.

(Reporting by Steve Holland; Writing by Arshad Mohammed; Editing by Ross Colvin, Daniel Wallis and Bernadette Baum)

Democrats ask U.S. Supreme Court to save Obamacare

By Lawrence Hurley

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – The Democratic-controlled U.S. House of Representatives and 20 Democratic-led states asked the Supreme Court on Friday to declare that the landmark Obamacare healthcare law does not violate the U.S. Constitution as lower courts have found in a lawsuit brought by Republican-led states.

The House and states including New York and California want the Supreme Court to heard their appeal of a Dec. 18 ruling by the New Orleans-based 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals that the law’s “individual mandate” that required people to obtain health insurance ran afoul of the Constitution.

The petitions asked the Supreme Court to hear the case quickly and issue a definitive ruling by the end of June.

Texas and 17 other conservative states – backed by President Donald Trump’s administration – filed a lawsuit challenging the law, which was signed by Democratic former President Barack Obama in 2010 over strenuous Republican opposition. A district court judge in Texas ruled in 2018 that the entire law was unconstitutional.

(Reporting by Lawrence Hurley; Editing by Will Dunham)

Supreme Court throws out ruling that blocked Florida cross on public land

Pensacola, Florida Cross on public land

By Lawrence Hurley

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – The U.S. Supreme Court on Friday threw out a lower court ruling that declared that a 34-foot (10 meters) Christian cross standing on public land in Pensacola, Florida violated the U.S. Constitution’s ban on government endorsement of religion.

The justices sent the case back to the Atlanta-based 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in light of the high court’s June 20 ruling in a similar case in which it upheld the constitutionality of a 40-foot-tall (12 meters) cross-shaped war memorial on public land in Maryland.

The high court’s 7-2 ruling said that long-standing monument was permissible under the U.S. Constitution’s First Amendment, which calls for the separation of church and state. The justices were divided over whether other types of religious displays and symbols on government property would be allowed.

A cross in Pensacola has stood on the site in Bayview Park since 1941, although the most recent version was erected in 1969. At times the site has been used for Easter services.

In a September 2018 ruling, the Atlanta-based court said the Pensacola law was unconstitutional, citing its own precedents on the issue.

(Reporting by Lawrence Hurley; Editing by Will Dunham)