The Supreme Court unanimously ruled on Thursday that Philadelphia is not allowed to exclude a Catholic social services agency from its foster care system because the group does not want to serve same-sex couples.
Despite the ruling, the justices narrowly stopped short of a sweeping decision on non-discrimination policies and religious freedoms. Chief Justice John Roberts wrote the ruling for six members of the court, which rested on an interpretation of the city's non-discrimination ordinance.
The city's policy allows authorities to provide exceptions to other groups based on secular reasons, which Roberts said should also be taken into consideration. Additionally, Roberts said the group's work in certifying foster care parents is not similar to a "public accommodation."
The justice said it could not discriminate under the ordinance, arguing foster care parent certification is not readily accessible to the public, which involves an arduous process.
However, many lawmakers did not share the ruling of the decision despite the three liberal justices of the court expressing their support of Roberts and the majority. Justices Brett Kavanaugh and Amy Coney Barrett also took the ruling's side, US News reported.
The opposition included Justices Samuel Alito, Clarence Thomas, and Neil Gorsuch. They argued separately that the ruling of the court treads around the issue of government power and religious beliefs.
Philadelphia officials employ the services of outside agencies when screening foster care parent candidates. As a policy, Catholic Social Services (CSS) refused to accommodate same-sex couples based on their religious convictions.
The city of Philadelphia then decided to stop working with CSS until it changed its policy about same-sex couples. However, instead of complying, CSS sued the city for allegedly violating its First Amendment rights to the free exercise of religion.
The voting ended with a unanimous result in support of the CSS group but had a 6-3 split on the reasoning with the majority limiting the reach of its decision. The court's decision was "certainly a loss," Richard Dearing, chief of the Appeals Division for the New York City Law Department said. He previously filed a brief for local governments supporting Philadelphia's decision.
CSS tried to overturn a 1990 Supreme Court decision called Employment Division versus Smith. Justice Antonin Scalia, a conservative and devout Catholic, authored the ruling. It wrote that there could be adverse effects to a religious group or person when the government enforces a generally applicable law or regulation despite being neutral, NPR reported.
Many conservative and religious advocacy rights groups expressed their agreement with the court's ruling, arguing the support of the three liberal members suggested further support for future legal disputes involving religious beliefs.
"The ruling was a strong ruling in favor of religious freedom, especially for social services providers," Lori Windham, a lawyer for the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty said. The group represented the agency and three foster parents during the case. He added the court was well aware it had no authority in excluding religious agencies for their beliefs, Reuters reported.