Faith-based organizations view Thursday’s U.S. Supreme Court ruling in favor of a Catholic foster care program in Philadelphia being allowed to adhere to its religious beliefs in not working with same-sex couples as a major victory.

“Any time there’s an opportunity to meet a child’s need, the faith community wants to be seen as a viable option, and this decision allows us to be at the table,” said Sharen Ford, director of foster care and adoption at Colorado Springs-based Focus on the Family, which works with foster families nationwide.

The decision means laws in states such as Colorado are “now vulnerable to litigation,” said Brittany Vessely, executive director of the Colorado Catholic Conference, which represents Colorado’s four Catholic bishops.

The nine justices unanimously agreed that Catholic Social Services in Philadelphia should be exempt from the city’s non-discrimination policy and be able to reject certifying same-sex couples as foster care parents.

Ford calls the decision “significant,” saying it “sends a clear message” that beliefs of faith communities are important and that “a group of families aren’t shut out because another group of families are invited in.”

“Their rights were violated — they wanted to serve families who have the same biblical beliefs as they did,” Ford said. “There is room at the table for everybody; Colorado has agencies that want to serve families — from licensing and equipping to orientation and training — from a biblical perspective, and Colorado has tons of agencies that won’t.”

Vessely said the Fulton v. Philadelphia case is interesting in that the Catholic agency had not had an application from a gay couple; the city inquired on a hypothetical basis about same-sex foster parenting, after having a need to fill 300 foster-parent slots.

“They blocked their largest and oldest provider, unless they changed their stance,” Vessely said.

The Supreme Court decision was based on an interpretation that the Catholic agency’s work in certifying foster parents does not fall under the definition of “public accommodation” barring discrimination on the basis of race, religion or sexual orientation.

The justices skirted the larger issue of how much of a say government can have with religious organizations’ views related to services they provide and argued about a 1990 decision, Employment Division v. Smith, which upheld that generally applicable laws are not unconstitutional just because they impact religious beliefs or practices.

Thursday's ruling will not change Colorado law, Nadine Bridges executive director of the LGBTQ advocacy group One Colorado said in a statement. 

Colorado is one of 27 states that prohibits discrimination in foster care based on sexual orientation and gender identity, according to the Movement Advancement Project, a independent think tank and policy researcher.

“The court did not give a license to discriminate based on religious beliefs,” Bridges said. “Government agencies will continue to enforce laws protecting LGBTQ people and others from discrimination.”

The ruling was “based on the unique circumstances under which anti-discrimination laws were applied in this specific case,” Bridges said. “Our state’s anti-discrimination laws will continue to be applied consistently and fairly.”

A Denver District Court judge ruled on Tuesday that a Colorado baker who received a favorable ruling in 2018 from the U.S. Supreme Court for refusing to make a wedding cake for a same-sex couple violated the state’s anti-discrimination law in 2017 by refusing to make a birthday cake for a transgender woman.

Jack Phillips, owner of Masterpiece Cakeshop in Lakewood, was fined $500 this week, the maximum penalty for violating Colorado’s Anti-Discrimination Act.

Contact the writer: 719-476-1656.

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