Feb 24, 2020 - Politics & Policy

Supreme Court to hear Philadelphia case over same-sex foster parents

Photo: Daniel Slim/AFP via Getty Images

The Supreme Court agreed Monday to hear a high-profile case that could reshape the bounds of First Amendment protections for religion.

Why it matters: The direct question in this case is whether Philadelphia had the right to cancel a contract with an adoption agency that refused to place foster children with same-sex couples. It also poses bigger questions that could lead the court to overturn a key precedent and carve out new protections for religious organizations.

Details: The First Amendment protects the free exercise of religion, but that doesn't allow one to invoke religious beliefs to "ignore generally applicable laws," the Supreme Court said in a 1990 decision.

  • In this case, Philadelphia says its refusal to work with organizations that discriminate against same-sex couples is a "generally applicable" law — it applies to everyone, no matter their religion, and so there does not need to be a religious exemption.
  • The adoption agency, backed by conservative legal advocates, says the city's policy is not neutral, but rather is a specific intrusion on Christian organizations' ability to abide by their religious beliefs.

What to watch: The Supreme Court will not only decide who's right in this specific dispute, but has also asked whether it should "revisit" the underlying 1990 precedent.

  • Under Chief Justice John Roberts, people who come to the court claiming a violation of their free-exercise rights usually win.

The bottom line: The Roberts court's record, plus the fact that it's inviting a challenge to its own precedents, indicates that it's open to a more expansive view of religious freedom — which could ultimately weaken a host of other nondiscrimination policies well beyond Philadelphia's.

Go deeper