Written by Don Byrd

Via Religion Clause, a federal court in Pennsylvania has weighed in on an increasingly high-profile and nationwide subject of religious liberty disputes. Judge Petrese Tucker denied a request from Catholic Social Services (CSS) for an injunction to restore its child placement services contract with the City of Philadelphia after the contract was rescinded by the city over the religious group’s refusal to place children with same-sex couples. The court ruled that the religious liberty rights of CSS were not likely violated by the requirement that they provide services free of discrimination.

Here is an excerpt from the opinion:

There is no support for the proposition that “the State can be required under the Free Exercise Clause to contract with a religious organization.” Here, CSS seeks… a government services contract on terms that it deems acceptable, but unlike those cases where the government withheld essential benefits on religious grounds, CSS is not entitled to a government service contract to perform governmental work. It further bears repeating that there is no evidence in the record that either DHS or Philadelphia has withheld a new contract or contractual compensation to CSS on religious grounds.

The court further rejected claims under the state’s Religious Freedom Restoration Act, finding that the requirement to comply with the nondiscrimination provision of the contract with the state does not amount to a substantial burden under state law. (It’s worth pointing out that Pennsylvania’s version of RFRA contains a much more restrictive definition of substantial burden than the federal version or similar versions in other states).

Several states are passing laws designed to specifically protect religious adoption service providers. A committee of the U.S.House also recently passed a provision in an appropriations bill that would similarly shield child placement agencies. 

According to the Philadelphia Inquirer, CSS plans to appeal the ruling. Stay tuned.