U.S. Supreme Court to hear Maine dispute over religious schools

By Andrew Chung

(Reuters) -The U.S. Supreme Court on Friday took up a challenge by two families with children attending Christian schools to a Maine tuition assistance program that bars taxpayer money from being used to pay for religious educational institutions in a case that could further narrow the separation of church and state.

The justices agreed to hear an appeal by the families of a lower court ruling in favor of the state that concluded that Maine’s program did not violate the U.S. Constitution’s First Amendment right to the free exercise of religion.

The case is the latest one for the court that pits the free exercise of religion against another element of the First Amendment: the separation of church and state that prohibits government establishment of an official religion or favoring one religion over another.

Some sparsely populated areas of Maine lack public secondary schools, so state law allows public funds to be used to pay for tuition at certain private schools of a parent’s choice as long as they are “nonsectarian.”

The case involves two sets of parents – David and Amy Carson, and Troy and Angela Nelson – who sued the state in 2018 in federal court, arguing that by the tuition assistance program’s exclusion of religious schools discriminates against them based on religion.

The Carsons pay out of pocket to send their daughter to Bangor Christian Schools in Maine’s third-largest city. The Nelsons would like to send both of their children to a Christian school called Temple Academy in Waterville, Maine, but can afford the tuition for only one, so their son attends Temple Academy while their daughter does not.

The schools, both of which are private and nonprofit, describe themselves as seeking to instill a “Biblical worldview” in their students. Bangor Christian Schools does not hire teachers who are gay or transgender, and would potentially expel openly gay or transgender students, according to court papers. Temple Academy does not hire gay teachers and likely would not accept gay, transgender or non-Christian students, court papers said.

The families contended that they are entitled to tuition help given the U.S. Supreme Court’s recent rulings siding with religiously based institutions, including its decision last year endorsing Montana tax credits that can help pay for students to attend religious schools. The families are represented by the Institute for Justice conservative legal group.

The Boston-based 1st U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled against the families last year, deciding that Supreme Court precedents did not forbid states from barring public funds from religious entities based on how those dollars would be used.

While states cannot disqualify religious schools from public aid programs simply because of their religious status or affiliation, Maine is not required to subsidize schools that would use the money to provide religious instruction, the 1st Circuit decided.

The families appealed to the Supreme Court, whose conservative majority has taken an expansive view of religious rights.

“States should not be permitted to withhold an otherwise available education benefit simply because a student would make the private and independent choice to use that benefit to procure an education that includes religious instruction,” they said in a court filing.

Maine Attorney General Aaron Frey, defending the law, said in a court filing that religious schools willing to provide a secular education may receive public funds.

“In excluding sectarian schools, Maine is declining to fund explicitly religious activity that is inconsistent with a free public education,” Frey wrote.

(Reporting by Andrew Chung in New York; Editing by Will Dunham)

U.S. Supreme Court invalidates California charity donor disclosure

By Lawrence Hurley

WASHINGTON (Reuters) -The U.S. Supreme Court on Thursday backed two conservative nonprofit groups that challenged California’s requirement that tax-exempt charities provide the state the identities of top financial donors – a decision that could imperil some political donor disclosure laws and buttress “dark money” donations.

The justices, in a 6-3 ruling, sided with the Americans for Prosperity Foundation and the Thomas More Law Center in finding that the California attorney general’s policy, in place for the past decade, violates the U.S. Constitution’s First Amendment guarantees of freedom of speech and association.

The court’s conservatives were in the majority, with its liberal members dissenting, just as they were in the other decision on their final day of rulings for their current nine-month term. In the other case, the court upheld Republican-backed ballot curbs in Arizona in a ruling that makes it earlier for states to enact voting restrictions.

Democratic-governed California, the most populous U.S. state, had said the donor information is required as part of the state attorney general’s duty to prevent charitable fraud.

“We are left to conclude that the Attorney General’s disclosure requirement imposes a widespread burden on donors’ associational rights,” Chief Justice John Roberts wrote in the ruling.

The state’s interest in “amassing sensitive information for its own convenience is weak,” Roberts added.

The Thomas More Law Center is a conservative Catholic legal group. The Americans for Prosperity Foundation, which funds education and training on conservative issues, is the sister organization of Americans for Prosperity, a conservative political advocacy group – both founded by conservative billionaire businessman Charles Koch and his late brother David.

“Stripping our office of confidential access to donor information – the same information about major donors that charities already provide to the federal government – will make it harder for the state to fight fraud and prevent the misuse of charitable contributions,” California’s Democratic Attorney General Rob Bonta said.

Americans for Prosperity Foundation CEO Emily Seidel said the ruling “protects Americans from being forced to choose between staying safe or speaking up,” alluding to her group’s concerns that donors could face threats if their identities become public.

‘A BULL’S-EYE’

The decision could make it easier for groups to withhold donor identities in other contexts, allowing for the entrenchment of untraceable “dark money” political donations that shield the identity of the donor.

The Supreme Court in the past has been hostile to political campaign finance restrictions – it ruled in 2010 that corporations and other outside groups could spend unlimited funds in elections – but had upheld disclosure requirements.

Liberal Justice Sonia Sotomayor wrote in a dissenting opinion that the court has reversed this previous approach.

“Today’s analysis marks reporting and disclosure requirements with a bull’s-eye. Regulated entities who wish to avoid their obligations can do so by vaguely waving toward First Amendment ‘privacy concerns,'” Sotomayor wrote.

Sotomayor said the court struck down the requirement without any evidence that donors would face negative consequences if their identities become public.

University of California, Irvine School of Law election law expert Rick Hasen wrote on his blog that the ruling will make it “much harder to sustain campaign finance disclosure laws going forward.”

Democratic congressional leaders fumed. Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer called the decision “jaw-dropping” and said it will make it “much harder to expose the evils of dark money in our political system.”

California required charities to provide a copy of the tax form they file with the U.S. Internal Revenue Service listing donors who contribute big amounts of money. Larger groups had to disclose donors who contributed $200,000 or more in any year. That information was not posted online and was kept confidential but some had become public.

The San Francisco-based 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in 2018 reversed a judge’s ruling in favor of the groups, prompting the appeal to the Supreme Court, which heard arguments in March.

Some congressional Democrats had urged conservative Justice Amy Coney Barrett, who was part of the majority in the ruling, not to participate in the case because Americans for Prosperity spent money last year to support her Senate confirmation to the court.

The two groups that challenged California’s mandate were backed by nonprofit organizations spanning the ideological spectrum. Liberal groups, including the American Civil Liberties Union, had urged a narrower ruling against California.

(Reporting by Lawrence Hurley; Editing by Will Dunham)

U.S. Supreme Court backs voting restrictions in Arizona

By Andrew Chung

(Reuters) -The U.S. Supreme Court on Thursday endorsed two Republican-backed ballot restrictions in Arizona that a lower court found had disproportionately burdened Black, Latino and Native American voters, handing a defeat to voting rights advocates and Democrats who had challenged the measures.

The 6-3 ruling, with the court’s conservative justices in the majority, held that the restrictions on early ballot collection by third parties and where absentee ballots may be cast did not violate the Voting Rights Act, a landmark 1965 federal law that prohibits racial discrimination in voting.

The court’s three liberal justices dissented from the decision.

The decision comes at a time when states are pursuing a series of Republican-backed voting restrictions in the wake of former President Donald Trump’s claims of widespread election fraud and irregularities in his 2020 loss to now-President Joe Biden.

The ruling represented a victory for the Arizona Republican Party and the state’s Republican attorney general, Mark Brnovich. They had appealed a lower court ruling that had deemed the restrictions unlawful.

The case involves a 2016 Arizona law that made it a crime to provide another person’s completed early ballot to election officials, with the exception of family members or caregivers. Community activists sometimes engage in ballot collection to facilitate voting and increase voter turnout. Ballot collection is legal in most states, with varying limitations. Republican critics call the practice “ballot harvesting.”

The other restriction at issue was a longstanding Arizona policy that discards ballots cast in-person at a precinct other than the one to which a voter has been assigned. In some places, voters’ precincts are not the closest one to their home.

The case raised questions over whether fraud must be documented in order to justify new curbs.

Democrats have accused Republicans at the state level of enacting voter-suppression measures to make it harder for racial minorities who tend to support Democratic candidates to cast ballots. Many Republicans have justified new restrictions as a means to reduce voter fraud, a phenomenon that election experts have said is rare in the United States.

Republicans are seeking to regain control of the U.S. Congress from the Democrats in the 2022 mid-term elections.

The Arizona legal battle concerned a specific provision called Section 2 of the Voting Rights Act that bans voting policies or practices that result in racial discrimination. Section 2 has been the main tool used to show that voting curbs discriminate against minorities since the Supreme Court in 2013 gutted another section of the statute that determined which states with a history of racial discrimination needed federal approval to change voting laws.

Arizona Republicans said in court papers that voting restrictions have partisan effects and impact elections. Invalidating the out-of-precinct policy would reduce Republican electoral prospects because it would increase Democratic turnout, they told the justices during March 2 arguments in the case.

The Republicans said that “race-neutral” regulations on the time, place or manner of an election do not deny anyone their right to vote and that federal law does not require protocols to maximize the participation of racial minorities.

The Democratic National Committee and the Arizona Democratic Party sued over the restrictions. Arizona’s Democratic Secretary of State Katie Hobbs has backed the challenge to the measures.

The San Francisco-based 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals last year found Arizona’s restrictions violated the Voting Rights Act, though they remained in effect for the Nov. 3 election in which Joe Biden, a Democrat, defeated Donald Trump, a Republican, in the state.

The 9th Circuit also found that “false, race-based claims of ballot collection fraud” were used to convince Arizona legislators to enact that restriction with discriminatory intent, violating the U.S. Constitution’s prohibition on denying voting rights based on race.

U.S. Senate Republicans on June 23 blocked Democratic-backed legislation that would broadly expand voting rights and establish uniform national voting standards to offset the wave new Republican-led voting restrictions in states.

Biden has sharply criticized Republican-backed state voting restrictions. Biden called a measure signed by Georgia’s Republican governor in March “an atrocity” and likened it to racist “Jim Crow” laws enacted in Southern states in the decades after the 1861-65 U.S. Civil War to legalize racial segregation and disenfranchise Black people.

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

U.S. Supreme Court backs pipeline companies in New Jersey land dispute

By Lawrence Hurley

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – The U.S. Supreme Court on Tuesday ruled in favor of a consortium of energy companies including Enbridge Inc seeking to seize land owned by New Jersey to build a $1 billion natural gas pipeline despite the state’s objections.

The justices in a 5-4 ruling handed a victory to PennEast Pipeline Company LLC, a joint venture seeking to build the 116-mile (187-km) pipeline from Pennsylvania to New Jersey. The justices overturned a lower court ruling in favor of New Jersey’s government.

Other companies joining Enbridge in the consortium include South Jersey Industries Inc, New Jersey Resources Corp (NJR), Southern Co and UGI Corp.

The court ruled that a 1938 U.S. law called the Natural Gas Act that lets private energy companies seize “necessary” parcels of land for a project if they have obtained a certificate from the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) can be applied to state-owned land.

“Specifically, we are asked to decide whether the federal government can constitutionally confer on pipeline companies the authority to condemn necessary rights-of-way in which a state has an interest. We hold that it can,” conservative Chief Justice John Roberts wrote for the court.

The law effectively gives private companies the power of eminent domain, in which government entities can take property in return for compensation.

(Reporting by Lawrence Hurley; Editing by Will Dunham)

Transgender student wins as U.S. Supreme Court rebuffs bathroom appeal

By Lawrence Hurley

WASHINGTON (Reuters) -The U.S. Supreme Court on Monday handed a victory to a transgender former public high school student who waged a six-year legal battle against a Virginia county school board that had barred him from using the bathroom corresponding with his gender identity.

The justices left in place a lower court’s ruling that the Gloucester County School Board had acted unlawfully in preventing Gavin Grimm from using the boys’ bathroom before he graduated in 2017. In doing so, the court opted against taking up a major transgender rights case that could have set a nationwide precedent on the issue.

The court turned away the board’s appeal of a 2020 ruling by the Richmond-based 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals that Grimm is protected under the federal law known as Title IX that bars sex discrimination in education and the U.S. Constitution’s requirement that people be treated equally under the law.

The brief court order noted that conservative Justices Clarence Thomas and Samuel Alito would have taken up the case.

“We won,” Grimm, now 22, wrote on Twitter. “I have nothing more to say but thank you, thank you, thank you. Honored to have been part of this victory.”

Grimm sued the school board in 2015. The Supreme Court previously took up the case in 2016 but did not issue a ruling and sent it back to lower courts.

The 4th Circuit ruling does not set a national legal precedent, but it does apply to the five states within its jurisdiction: Maryland, North Carolina, South Carolina, Virginia and West Virginia.

Bathroom access represents one of the major issues in the fight over transgender rights, and Grimm’s suit was the most prominent legal case on the subject. But the legal and political battles over protections for transgender Americans, both in education and in society as a whole, are set to continue.

Several states including Florida have enacted laws that block transgender women and girls from competing in sports. The Supreme Court may yet rule on the bathroom access issue and related transgender rights matters in future cases.

“Our work is not yet done,” said Josh Block, an American Civil Liberties Union lawyer who represents Grimm.

Block said the decision by the justices not to hear the case indicates that they see no urgency to weigh in on the issue.

“The court can see that trans kids have been using the restrooms and none of the apocalyptic fears have actually come to pass,” Block added.

The school board did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

President Joe Biden’s administration, reversing the position taken under his predecessor Donald Trump, said on June 16 that Title IX protects both gender identity and sexual orientation. The administration has not said specifically how that applies to school bathroom access.

Grimm, assigned female gender at birth, identifies as male. Grimm initially enrolled at Gloucester High School as a girl and started attending as a male student in September 2014. With the school’s permission, Grimm used the boys’ bathroom for about seven weeks without incident.

After complaints from parents, the school board adopted a policy in December 2014 requiring students to use the bathroom corresponding with their gender at birth. Grimm was given the option of using a separate gender-neutral bathroom, but refused, feeling stigmatized.

Judge Henry Floyd, writing for the 4th Circuit, said the school board’s actions constituted “a special kind of discrimination against a child that he will no doubt carry with him for life.” The 4th Circuit upheld a federal judge’s 2019 ruling in Grimm’s favor.

Grimm’s case was previously set to be argued at the Supreme Court in 2017 but was taken off the schedule after Trump’s administration rescinded guidance issued under his predecessor Barack Obama regarding bathroom access for transgender students.

The Biden administration has reversed various Trump policies on LGBT issues.

The Supreme Court issued a landmark 2020 ruling that gay and transgender people are protected under a federal law that bars sex discrimination in employment. That ruling helped guide the 4th Circuit’s decision in Grimm’s case and the Biden administration’s position on Title IX protections.

(Reporting by Lawrence Hurley; Editing by Will Dunham)

U.S. Supreme Court limits union power in farm-access ruling

By Andrew Chung

(Reuters) -The U.S. Supreme Court again tightened the reins on organized labor on Wednesday, declaring in a case brought by two fruit companies that a decades-old California regulation that let union organizers enter agricultural properties without an employer’s consent violated constitutional property rights.

The 6-3 ruling, with the court’s conservative justices in the majority, overturned a 2019 lower court decision throwing out the challenge to the regulation by the companies in the most populous U.S. state. The court’s three liberal justices dissented from the decision.

The court found that the regulation, which gave union organizers access to the companies’ workers, was akin to the government taking private property for public use without just compensation in violation of the U.S. Constitution’s Fifth Amendment.

The challenge was brought by Dorris, California strawberry producer Cedar Point Nursery and Fresno-based Fowler Packing Company, which ships grapes and mandarin oranges. The justices made clear that any limitation on the ability of owners to exclude others from their property without compensation is unconstitutional.

“The access regulation grants labor organizations a right to invade the growers’ property. It therefore constitutes a per se physical taking,” Chief Justice John Roberts wrote for the majority.

The California Agricultural Labor Relations Board regulation, in place since 1975, had allowed union organizers, with notice to regulators and the employer, to enter agricultural premises to talk with employees for three non-working hours per day during four 30-day periods each year. The organizers did not require an employer’s consent.

It marked the latest setback for unions at the Supreme Court, which in 2018 ruled in another case that non-members cannot be forced, as they are in certain states, to pay fees to unions representing public employees such as police and teachers that negotiate collective bargaining agreements with employers.

‘PROTECTS EVERYONE’S FREEDOM’

“Today’s ruling is a huge victory for property rights,” said Joshua Thompson, an attorney with the Pacific Legal Foundation, a conservative legal group that represented the companies.

Cedar Point owner Mike Fahner said, “This decision protects everyone’s freedom to decide for themselves who is – and is not – allowed on their own property.”

The regulation’s defenders had argued that such a sweeping ruling could hurt not just union organizing but also food, factory and social work inspections, or even Border Patrol entries onto private property to enforce immigration laws.

In a dissenting opinion, liberal Justice Stephen Breyer emphasized the temporary nature of the union activity in this case.

“The regulation does not appropriate anything. It does not take from the owners a right to invade (whatever that might mean),” Breyer wrote.

Breyer also said the ruling could undermine other regulations requiring government officials or others to enter a property.

“Most such temporary-entry regulations do not go ‘too far.’ And it is impractical to compensate every property owner for any brief use of their land,” Breyer added.

The two fruit companies had sought to halt enforcement of the regulation. They challenged it after disputes with the United Farm Workers, a union whose history traces back to the famous labor leader and civil rights activist Cesar Chavez, who died in 1993.

On Twitter, the union said the ruling failed to balance farmers’ property rights with farm workers’ civil rights.

“Farm workers are the hardest-working people in America. This decision denies workers the right to use breaks to freely discuss whether they want to have a union,” it said.

Unions have said the rule in practice afforded them little time to reach workers during the narrow window of seasonal farm work either before or after work. They have said that farm workers often are migrants who change job sites frequently and may not understand English or Spanish, making work site access one of the only ways to inform them of their labor rights.

Both companies called the regulation outdated. They said farm employees are easier to reach than ever, including through smartphones and radio stations, and that nearly all of their 3,000 workers can communicate in English and Spanish.

Organizers disrupted work on Cedar’s property with bullhorns, while Fowler was accused of denying organizers access, drawing a complaint with regulators, according to the lawsuit.

The San Francisco-based 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals threw out the challenge.

Former President Donald Trump’s administration had backed the companies. Democratic President Joe Biden’s administration reversed the government’s position.

(Reporting by Andrew Chung in New York; Editing by Will Dunham)

U.S. Supreme Court declines to expand police search powers

By Lawrence Hurley

WASHINGTON (Reuters) -Police do not have unlimited authority to enter a home without a warrant when pursuing a person suspected of a without a warrant, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled on Wednesday in a case involving a California motorist chased home by an officer for honking his horn while listening to music.

By declining to endorse a broad interpretation of police power, the justices handed a victory to the driver, Arthur Lange, who is challenging his conviction of driving under the influence after the California highway patrol officer entered his garage without a warrant and performed a sobriety test.

The court, in a 9-0 decision authored by liberal Justice Elena Kagan, sent the case back to the California Court of Appeals. The justices rejected the lower court’s finding that warrants are not required in any situation in which police are in pursuit, even if the suspected crime is minor.

“The flight of a suspected misdemeanant does not always justify a warrantless entry into a home,” Kagan wrote.

“An officer must consider all the circumstances in a pursuit case to determine whether there is a law enforcement emergency,” Kagan added.

Although the justices were unanimous in tossing out the lower court decision, there was some disagreement among them on the law. Chief Justice John Roberts wrote in a separate opinion joined by fellow conservative Justice Samuel Alito that police should be able to complete an arrest when they are in pursuit of someone, even if the suspect enters a home.

“The Constitution does not demand this absurd and dangerous result. We should not impose it,” Roberts wrote

Lange was confronted inside his garage by officer Aaron Weikert in 2016. The ruling did not definitively resolve whether the sobriety test evidence can be used against Lange, who argued that it was obtained in violation of the U.S. Constitution’s Fourth Amendment ban on unreasonable searches and seizures.

The ruling was issued at a time of heightened scrutiny of police powers and use of force in the United States after several high-profile incidents in recent years involving the actions of law enforcement. Protests erupted in many cities last year against police brutality and racism.

After observing Lange driving and honking his horn, Weikert began following him and intended to stop him for violating local noise restrictions, a minor infraction that carries small fines, but did not immediately turned on the police vehicle’s emergency lights, according to filings in the case.

Lange was already in his driveway when the officer caught up with him and activated his emergency lights. Weikert pulled into the driveway as Lange was driving his car into his garage. Lange later said he did not know the officer had been following him.

The garage door was just about to close when Weikert stuck his foot under the door, preventing it from shutting.

Weikert said he smelled alcohol and ordered Lange to take a sobriety test. Lange was found to be more than three times over the legal limit and was charged with driving under the influence (DUI) and a noise infraction.

Lower courts ruled against Lange, deeming the incident a “hot pursuit” that allowed a warrantless entry.

Lange pleaded no contest to the DUI offense and was sentenced to 30 days in jail and three years of probation.

The California Court of Appeals in 2019 upheld Lange’s conviction. Lange then asked the Supreme Court to rule that police officers cannot evade the warrant requirement when chasing someone to their home when the underlying conduct constitutes a misdemeanor offense.

Under Supreme Court precedent, officers can enter a home without a warrant when they are in pursuit of a suspected felon.

(Reporting by Lawrence Hurley; Editing by Will Dunham)

U.S. Supreme Court rebuffs insurers on Obamacare reimbursements

By Lawrence Hurley

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – The U.S. Supreme Court on Monday declined to hear a bid by health insurance companies to seek a full reimbursement from the federal government under a provision of the Obamacare law aimed at encouraging them to offer medical coverage to uninsured Americans.

The justices turned away appeals brought by private insurers Maine Community Health Options, Community Health Choice Inc and Common Ground Healthcare Cooperative.

The insurers had said they were collectively owed millions of dollars for each year they did not receive payments the government had pledged to make under the 2010 law, formally called the Affordable Care Act. Litigation will now continue in lower courts over how much the insurers can claim.

The Supreme Court left in place an August 2020 ruling by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit that the insurers’ reimbursement for money owed could be offset by other income they received from the government in the form of premium tax credits.

The Supreme Court in an 8-1 ruling in April 2020 in an earlier stage of the same litigation decided that the federal government must “honor its obligations” and pay various private insurers up to $12 billion owed to them. But when the case returned to lower courts after that ruling, the federal government continued to argue that it was not required to pay in full, setting up a new round in the legal fight.

Unlike other litigation involving Obamacare – long targeted by Republicans for repeal in Congress or invalidation through the courts – this case concerned only payments to insurers and did not directly challenge the law itself.

The court in a 7-2 ruling last Thursday rejected a Republican challenge to the law, the third time that the justices preserved Obamacare over the past decade.

The insurers have said the government was supposed to help them recover from early losses they suffered after the law was passed by Congress and signed by Democratic former President Barack Obama.

The law has enabled millions of Americans who previously had no medical coverage to obtain insurance, including those with pre-existing medical conditions, though an expansion of the Medicaid program for the poor and though private insurers.

Payments to the insurers would have come through the law’s so-called risk corridor program designed to mitigate insurers’ risks from 2014 to 2016, when they sold coverage to previously uninsured people through exchanges established under Obamacare.

Insurers that paid out significantly less in claims on policies sold through the exchanges than they took in from premiums provided some of their gains to the government. Insurers that paid out more were entitled to government compensation for part of their losses.

From 2015 through 2017, Congress passed legislation barring the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services from using general funds to pay the government’s risk corridor obligations. Health insurers turned to federal courts to obtain the payments.

(Reporting by Lawrence Hurley; Editing by Will Dunham)

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. Supreme Court rejects Republican challenge to Obamacare law

By Lawrence Hurley

WASHINGTON (Reuters) -The U.S. Supreme Court on Thursday rejected a Republican bid that had been backed by former President Donald Trump’s administration to invalidate the Obamacare healthcare law, ruling that Texas and other challengers had no legal standing to file their lawsuit.

The 7-2 ruling authored by liberal Justice Stephen Breyer did not decide broader legal questions raised in the case about whether a key provision in the law, which is formally called the Affordable Care Act, was unconstitutional and, if so, whether the rest of the statute should be struck down.

The provision, called the “individual mandate,” originally required Americans to obtain health insurance or pay a financial penalty.

It marked the third time the court has preserved Obamacare since its 2010 enactment.

“The Affordable Care Act remains the law of the land and will continue to provide millions of Americans with healthcare,” said Sabrina Singh, a spokeswoman for Vice President Kamala Harris. “Today is a good day.”

Breyer wrote that none of the challengers, including Texas and 17 other states and individual plaintiffs, could trace a legal injury to the individual mandate.

President Joe Biden’s administration in February urged the Supreme Court to uphold Obamacare, reversing the position taken by the government under Trump, who left office in January.

After Texas and other states sued, a coalition of 20 states including Democratic-governed California and New York and the Democratic-controlled House of Representatives intervened in the case to try to preserve Obamacare after Trump refused to defend the law.

“For more than a decade, the Affordable Care Act has been the law of the land, providing health coverage and a multitude of protections to tens of millions of Americans across the nation, and today’s decision solidifies those protections for generations to come,” New York Attorney General James said.

The two dissenting justices were conservatives Samuel Alito and Neil Gorsuch. Justice Amy Coney Barrett, a Trump appointee whose confirmation hearing last fall included many questions from Democrats over whether she would vote to strike the law down, was in the majority in the ruling.

Republicans fiercely opposed Obamacare when it was proposed, failed to repeal it when they controlled both chambers of Congress and have been unsuccessful in getting courts to invalidate the law, which was Democratic former President Barack Obama’s signature domestic policy achievement. The Trump administration did take steps to hobble the law.

The Supreme Court has a 6-3 conservative majority bolstered by the October confirmation in a Republican-led Senate of Trump’s third appointee, Amy Coney Barrett, but the Republican Obamacare challengers still came away disappointed. The Supreme Court in 2012 and 2015 also fended off previous Republican challenges to Obamacare.

Biden has pledged to expand healthcare access and buttress Obamacare. Biden and other Democrats had criticized Republican efforts to strike down the law at a time when the United States was grappling with a deadly coronavirus pandemic.

If Obamacare had been struck down, up to 20 million Americans stood to lose their medical insurance and insurers could have once again refused to cover people with pre-existing medical conditions. Obamacare expanded the Medicaid state-federal healthcare program and created marketplaces for private insurance.

In 2017, Trump signed a Republican-backed tax law that eliminated the financial penalty under the individual mandate, which gave rise to the Republican lawsuit. The tax law meant the individual mandate could no longer be interpreted as a tax provision and was therefore unlawful, the Republican challengers argued.

The Supreme previously upheld Obamacare by deeming the financial penalty under the individual mandate a tax permissible under the Constitution’s language empowering Congress to levy taxes.

The impetus for the Supreme Court case was a 2018 ruling by a federal judge in Texas that Obamacare as structured following the 2017 change violated the U.S. Constitution and was invalid in its entirety. The New Orleans-based 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals agreed that the individual mandate was unconstitutional but did not rule that the entire law should be stricken.

Biden’s administration notified the court of the government’s new position in February in a letter filed by Deputy Solicitor General Edwin Kneedler. The Biden administration believes that the individual mandate was constitutional and, even if it was not, the rest of the law should remain in place, Kneedler wrote.

(Reporting by Lawrence Hurley; Additional reporting by Trevor Hunnicutt; Editing by Will Dunham)