WASHINGTON — The Supreme Court said this morning it will hear a dispute over a Philadelphia Catholic agency that won’t place foster children with same-sex couples.
The justices will review an appeals court ruling that upheld the city’s decision to stop placing children with the Archdiocese of Philadelphia’s agency because it would not permit same-sex couples to serve as foster parents.
The 3rd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Philadelphia ruled the city did not target the agency because of its religious beliefs, but acted only to enforce its own nondiscrimination policy in the face of what seemed to be a clear violation.
The case will not be argued until the fall.
Among the issues the justices will take up is whether to overrule a 30-year-old Supreme Court decision that does not allow for religious exemptions from laws that apply generally and neutrally to everyone.
The federal Religious Freedom Restoration Act, approved by Congress to counteract the court ruling, does not apply to state and local government action.
Philadelphia’s contract with the agency, Catholic Social Services, has expired. But the agency is seeking a court order requiring the city to renew the contract.
Catholic Social Services won’t certify same-sex married couples because of religious principles, and it also doesn’t allow unmarried couples who live together to have custody of foster children under its program.
The agency had worked with the city for years, but its policy only came to the city’s attention in March 2018, when a reporter with The Philadelphia Inquirer asked about it, the appeals court said.
The Inquirer reported that Catholic Social Services placed about 260 children in 2017. Philadelphia has contracts with more than two dozen agencies that help find foster homes for about 5,000 children, a city spokesman said.
In another church/state question today, the court threw out a court order to seize assets belonging to the Roman Catholic archdiocese of San Juan, Puerto Rico, to pay pension benefits for Catholic school teachers.
The justices said in an unsigned opinion that a Puerto Rico court lacked the authority to issue an order to seize $4.7 million of the archdiocese’s assets to cover the pension benefits.
The high court ruling does not end the fight over the benefits, which arose amid the long-running recession that led Puerto Rico’s government to declare bankruptcy and Congress to create an oversight board to help the U.S. territory deal with more than $100 billion in debts and public pension obligations.
In the midst of the crisis, active and retired employees of the Catholic schools sued over claims that the archdiocese had effectively eliminated pension benefits.
The justices’ ruling today turned on a technical legal matter — the case was briefly in the federal court system and the local court seizure order was issued before the case was returned to Puerto Rico courts.
The larger undecided issue in the case is whether the archdiocese has religious protections under the Constitution that would prevent a court from interfering with its internal operations.
In a third ruling today, the educational records of a star University of Montana quarterback accused of rape will remain confidential after the Supreme Court declined to get involved in the case brought by author Jon Krakauer.
Krakauer had made a public records request for the documents in 2014 while writing the book “Missoula: Rape and the Justice System in a College Town.” But Montana officials denied him access to the documents related to former University of Montana quarterback Jordan Johnson, who was accused of rape by an acquaintance in 2012.
Krakauer, the author of “Into the Wild” and “Into Thin Air,” took officials to court over their denial. A lower court initially ordered Krakauer be given access to the records but the Montana Supreme Court disagreed.
Johnson was ultimately acquitted in court but a university disciplinary process had recommended expelling him. Johnson appealed his expulsion to State Commissioner of Higher Education Clayton Christian.
It wasn’t clear what action Christian took but Johnson remained a student. Krakauer wanted documents related to Christian’s intervention.
As is typical, the Supreme Court didn’t comment today in turning away the case.