Rights on Trial: Same-Sex Couples vs Catholic Agency

The Supreme Court ruled on Thursday that the city of Philadelphia had placed an unlawful burden on Catholic Social Services “by putting it to the choice of curtailing its mission or approving relationships inconsistent with its beliefs.”

The decision does not address the issue of religious freedom broadly, only the specific case. Yet in the subsequent conversation, it is framed as either a triumph for religious freedom, or a tragedy for anti-discrimination. 

To the left, this decision is an enforcement of state-sponsored bigotry. Children don’t need to be protected from gay parents, they need a loving home. Using tax money — paid, in part, by the very couples who are being discriminated against — to support prejudiced organizations is disgraceful. Children’s welfare should trump religious biases. 

To the right, the decision is just and proper. We must allow religious groups to continue doing good work without forcing them to compromise on their religious beliefs. Not even the liberal Supreme Court justices denied that this right exists. Besides, same-sex couples can apply with other social service agencies to become foster parents — why force people to act against their religious views when there are alternatives?

Clashes of rights

This disagreement is ultimately about freedom; religious freedom versus the freedom to not be discriminated against. 

The left tends to prioritize positive rights — freedoms which oblige action, such as non-discrimination laws that compel businesses and organizations to serve everyone. Securing positive rights is a way to protect the vulnerable. 

The right tends to prioritize negative rights — freedoms which oblige inaction, such as non-intervention in religion. Securing negative rights is a way to protect a person’s right to live without interference. 

In this case, we must decide whether the same-sex parents’ right to not be discriminated against takes precedence over the right of religious people to not be forced by the government to do something against their religious beliefs. 

In either outcome, we must recognize that someone is going to feel violated. 


Debate around this particular Supreme Court case is a proxy for a larger division over how life ought to be; the broader conversation is one of fundamental values. This is why debates around rights and freedom are not only very polarizing, but feel deeply personal.

Regardless of your perspective of freedom, it’s an idea we all hold dear. That’s what makes these high-profile clashes of rights seem so acutely personal — it feels like our way of life is on trial.



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Further reading

In the opinion, Chief Justice John Roberts explained:

CSS seeks only an accommodation that will allow it to continue serving the children of Philadelphia in a manner consistent with its religious beliefs; it does not seek to impose those beliefs on anyone else. The refusal of Philadelphia to contract with CSS for the provision of foster care services unless it agrees to certify same-sex couples as foster parents cannot survive strict scrutiny, and violates the First Amendment.

Supreme Court unanimously sides with Catholic adoption agency that turned away same-sex couples, John Kruzel for The Hill 

Supreme Court sides with Catholic foster agency that excludes same-sex couples in 9-0 ruling, Tyler Olson & Bill Mears for Fox News

Supreme Court rules in favor of Catholic foster care agency that refused to work with same-sex couples, Ariane de Vogue for CNN 

Opinion Analysis: Court holds that city’s refusal to make referrals to faith-based agency violates Constitution, Amy Howe for the SCOTUSBlog