Community reactions to Fulton v. City of Philadelphia decision

by Matt Landers (he/him), Director of Public Policy & Government Affairs
| Jun 17, 2021

This morning the Supreme Court of the United State unanimously decided in favor of Catholic Social Services in the Fulton v. City of Philadelphia case.

While this decision is a disappointment, interpretations from LGBTQ+ legal experts are relieved that it appears to be a relatively narrow ruling that is hopefully limited to some of the specific circumstances of this one case, rather than a blanket ruling in favor of anti-LGBTQ+ discrimination.

The case originated when Catholic Social Services sued Philadelphia for refusing to give an exemption that would allow it to deny same-sex couples applying to be foster and adoptive parents. Philadelphia argued that an agency contracting for public services must comply with the city’s anti-discrimination laws. The Supreme Court’s ruling was decided based on the finding that Philadelphia’s contract did authorize an exemption and also the that the City had granted exemptions to other providers in the past.

Regardless of the interpretation of this ruling, it reinforces the urgency of passing the federal Equality Act to ensure that strong anti-discrimination protections are available for LGBTQ+ people across the United States. You can learn more about the Equality Act in this community event organized by QLaw Association, QLaw Foundation, the Washington State LGBTQ Commission, and GSBA.

Some of the reactions to today’s ruling from LGBTQ+ legal experts include:

Lambda Legal
“Today’s ruling by the Supreme Court is troubling but, importantly, it refused to give a free pass to people or agencies that want to discriminate against LGBTQ people for religious reasons and is limited to the specifics of Philadelphia’s foster care system. Instead, the Court validated the City’s ‘weighty’ interest in the equal treatment of LGBTQ prospective foster parents and foster children. The only reason those interests did not carry the day was due to the specifics of the City’s contract. Because the Court decided the case on contract-specific grounds, the City can address the situation by rewriting its contracts.”

“Any rationales that allow contract agencies to discriminate harm all children in care who need family foster homes if they cannot safely return to their parent or parents. LGBTQ foster children, the data shows, constitute almost one-third of all children in the foster care system and are over-represented in group homes and facilities because of a lack of foster homes. These children have a critical need for a foster care licensing system that welcomes everyone. Today’s ruling is concerning because it may give governments pause or cause confusion regarding nondiscrimination requirements in contracts.” 

National Center for Lesbian Rights
“Properly understood, today’s decision is a significant victory for LGBTQ people,” said Shannon Minter, NCLR Legal Director. “The Court ruled in favor of Catholic Social Services, but on the narrowest possible ground, based on language in the City of Philadelphia’s contract that authorized individualized exemptions for any provider. The Court did not change the current constitutional framework, which permits governments to enforce antidiscrimination laws that prohibit discrimination against LGBTQ people even when doing so may have a disparate burden on those who hold certain religious beliefs. As a result of today’s decision, those who feared the Court might create a sweeping new religious exemption to such laws can breathe a sigh of relief.”

“This narrow ruling allows governments to continue to prohibit discrimination not only against LGBTQ foster and adoptive parents but also against LGBTQ parents who are often wrongfully separated from their children by discriminatory child welfare practices that unfairly target parents who are poor, LGBTQ, disabled, or people of color,” said Cathy Sakimura, NCLR Deputy Director and Family Law Director. “Today’s decision preserves the critical ability of governments to prohibit such rampant discrimination, which is an urgent need.”

Transgender Law Center
#SCOTUS decided in favor of Catholic Social Services because Philadelphia allowed for exceptions to non-discrimination provisions in the City’s contracts, not because the Court believes that the City does not have the right to enforce their non-discrimination laws. This is a win.

We know that the foster care system has never been safe for many of us, especially Black people, people of color & TGNC people. We must ground this decision and impacts in the racist history of the child welfare system that has long been used as a tool to enforce White Supremacy.

We will continue to fight back against any harms committed by the state and organizations using public money to discriminate. But we know that the State will not save us. As we fight constant attacks from the religious right, we know that true power exists within our community.

“This case is an important reminder of the countless ways that LGBTQ Americans, people of color, women, people of minority faiths and others still face discrimination across our country,” said CenterLink CEO Denise Spivak.  “That’s why CenterLink is calling on Congress to pass federal nondiscrimination protections such as the ones outlined in the Equality Act. Because no one should have to live in fear of discrimination simply because of who they are."