Decision 2020

Philly, Catholic Church Will Do Battle at U.S. Supreme Court Soon – Minus Ginsburg

A Philadelphia woman, who works as a foster mother for Catholic Social Services, sued the City of Philadelphia after the city cut off the religious organization over its refusal to allow same-sex couples to foster children.

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Sharonell Fulton has worked as a foster parent for Catholic Social Services in Philadelphia for 27 years, but her legacy will eventually go beyond the dozens of children she's cared for.

Soon, her name will be attached forever to a U.S. Supreme Court decision.

"Mostly, what I've done is emergency placement, so that means they've been taken from their families. And they don't understand why. They're hurting," Fulton said in a video posted on YouTube in 2019. "My goal with the children is to reach out, find a way."

Fulton, along with Catholic Social Services, sued the City of Philadelphia in 2018 after the city excluded the religious organization from its roster of foster agencies. The city decided to cut ties because Catholic Social Services would not allow same-sex couples to serve as foster parents.

On Nov. 4, a day after the presidential election, the Supreme Court will hear oral arguments in the case. They will decide whether to uphold or reject a federal Circuit Court of Appeals ruling that found the City of Philadelphia is allowed to exclude Catholic Social Services over the religious agency's refusal to allow same-sex couples to foster.

It is one of numerous cases of importance on the court's docket in October and November. Potential rulings in all of them are now being looked at differently after the death of Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg.

In the case of Fulton v. City of Philadelphia, legal scholars expected Ginsburg to cast her vote on the side of the city. Now, however, a favorable ruling for the city is less likely without Ginsburg.

It remains unclear if the Supreme Court will hear the case with the eight remaining justices, or whether a replacement for Ginsburg will be seated by Nov. 4.

Filling the iconic Ginsburg's seat in that short of a window would be extraordinary by historical standards, but both President Donald Trump and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell have shown an eagerness to fill the court vacancy as soon as possible.

Their hurdles include a thin majority of 52-48 for Republicans in the Senate, including two GOP senators who have already said they won't support the effort to fill the Ginsburg vacancy until after the election. Many other Republican senators have yet to voice their opinion on whether to fast track a nominee.

Some, like Sen. Pat Toomey, R-Pennsylvania, would have to change positions they previously held.

Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden said Ginsburg's replacement should be chosen by the winner of the November election.

"There is no doubt – let me be clear – that the voters should pick the president and the president should pick the justice for the Senate to consider,” Biden told reporters in Wilmington, Delaware, last Friday.

At the time the original lawsuit was filed in federal court in May 2018, Catholic Social Services fostered 120 children a day through foster parents like Fulton, according to the initial complaint.

When attorneys for Fulton and Catholic Social Services asked the Supreme Court to hear their case and reject the lower courts' rulings, one of the questions the attorneys posed was:

"Whether a government violates the First Amendment by conditioning a religious agency’s ability to participate in the foster care system on taking actions and making statements that directly contradict the agency’s religious beliefs?"

Lawyers for the American Civil Liberties Union have argued, successfully so far, that the case is not a question of First Amendment rights, but instead a question of whether discrimination by a religious organization is allowed when employed by a government entity.

"... Catholic Social Services, sued the City, claiming that the right to free exercise of religion entitles it to a taxpayer-funded contract to perform a government service even though it is unwilling to comply with the City’s requirement that contract agencies accept all qualified families," the ACLU has said.

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