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Religious conduct at issue in Supreme Court case

Philadelphia severed ties with Catholic agency because of its policy on same-sex couples

The following is an op-ed written for the secular press by Archbishop Thomas Wenski. Archbishop Wenski chairs the U.S. bishops' Committee for Religious Liberty.

As the country’s attention turns ever closer to Tuesday’s election, the Supreme Court is preparing to hear arguments the next day in a pivotal case with far-reaching consequences for the future of religious liberty in America – Fulton v. City of Philadelphia. The case presents the question of whether the First Amendment protects the right of religious believers to practice their faith in full when serving in the public square.

The Archdiocese of Philadelphia’s Catholic Social Services (CSS) serves all children without regard to race, religion, sex, or any other characteristic. At the same time, in accordance with both the natural law and the Church’s teachings on marriage, CSS does not certify same-sex couples to become foster parents, just as it does not certify unmarried heterosexual couples. After a reporter made an issue of CSS’s long-standing policy, the city terminated CSS’s contract to provide foster care services.

The Church pioneered foster care in Philadelphia, 150 years before the government got involved.

American Catholics like St. Elizabeth Ann Seton and St. Frances Cabrini are celebrated by all Americans for their charitable works, works that, while performed in a manner coherent with Catholic teachings, also promoted the common good of all. We serve people not because they are Catholic but because we are. It’s what we do – and we have done it for almost 2,000 years.

In Trinity Lutheran and Espinoza, the Supreme Court struck down laws that discriminated based on an institution’s religious identity but left open the question of whether governments may discriminate based on religious conduct. In Fulton, the Court must face this question squarely. Can the government exclude Catholics from participation in social works (such as providing foster care) because we include within our best practices policies coherent with Catholic teachings on marriage and family? Can the government effectively exclude people of faith from participation in the provision of a social benefit because they are guided by their faith in the provision of these benefits?

The actions of the City of Philadelphia to end a long and fruitful relationship with Catholic Social Services because of an inquiry from a reporter shows a considerable deficit of courage on the part of the city. This exclusion of CCS from providing adoption and foster care services hurts the potential beneficiaries of these services. Excluding CCS from contracting with the city to provide social services because it is essentially “too Catholic” leaves us with a “hallowed out” pluralism that makes a mockery of the First Amendment’s guarantee of religious liberty.

Comments from readers

Carlos Garcia-Larrieu - 10/28/2020 08:59 PM
It is incredible that well meaning social programs are being dumped into the trash pile of today’s cancel culture

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