WASHINGTON – The U.S. Supreme Court could hand down a decision anytime this month in a case regarding Philadelphia’s refusal to let a Catholic ministry take part in the city’s foster care program because the ministry won’t violate its religious convictions by giving children to same-sex couples.
Though the Supreme Court case involves a Catholic ministry, Missouri Baptist Children’s Home (MBCH) President Russell Martin said the court’s decision could greatly impact the MBCH’s ministry.
“This case is of particular interest to Missouri Baptist Children’s Home and similar faith-based ministries,” Martin said. “At stake is whether faith-based ministries will be able to maintain their biblical values and continue to provide services to hurting children, youth and families.
“There is a tremendous need,” he added, “for foster families to meet the needs of the 14,115 foster children in Missouri. Over the past 15 years, MBCH has helped facilitate the addition of more than 1,100 Christian foster homes to the foster care system. To eliminate faith-based providers solely on the basis of their biblical values and beliefs would unnecessarily reduce the number of providers of these services and be an injustice to those who so desperately need them.”
Fortunately for faith-based foster care and adoption ministries, commentators on SCOTUSblog.com noted that Supreme Court Justices appeared “sympathetic” to the Philadelphia foster care ministry, Catholic Social Services.
Kansas City attorneys Michael and Jonathan Whitehead said this case raises the possibility for a major, positive shift in the court’s thinking about religious liberty. The court, they said, could possibly overturn its previous Employment Division v. Smith decision, a controversial opinion written by the late Justice Antonin Scalia, which held that “neutral laws of general applicability” usually do not violate the free exercise clause.
The Whiteheads said the Smith decision has crippled free exercise claimants for 30 years. In 1990, many religious liberty scholars, left and right, criticized Scalia’s opinion as “gutting” the free exercise clause.
The Smith decision led to the passage of the Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA) by Congress and similar laws in many states. RFRA was supported by religious groups, left and right, and became the alternative legal strategy for religious liberty lawyers, because constitutional Free Exercise claims were so weakened by Smith. Several justices have criticized Smith in recent years, enticing the lawyers in the current case to ask the Court to “gut” Smith and revitalize the Free Exercise clause.
“We are cautiously optimistic,” the Whiteheads said, “that the court will rule for the (Philadelphia-based) religious ministry and may revise or overrule the Smith decision, for the good of religious liberty claimants generally.”