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Supreme Court Sides With Religious Freedom In High Profile LGBTQ Rights Case


The Supreme Court today ruled in a case that pitted religious freedom against gay rights, and the justices unanimously sided with the religious group, Catholic Social Services. The city of Philadelphia had refused to contract with them because the group doesn't accept same-sex couples as foster parents. Chief Justice John Roberts wrote the opinion saying that Philadelphia was violating the First Amendment. Currey Cook is with the gay rights group Lambda Legal, which wrote a friend-of-the-court brief in the case. He directs the organization's youth in out-of-home care project. Welcome to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED.

CURREY COOK: Hi, Ari. Thank you for having me

SHAPIRO: Begin, if you would, by just giving us your reaction to this decision.

COOK: Well, I think it's important to note that the Supreme Court today made a very specific ruling that applies to Philadelphia's system and to the contract that they had with Catholic Social Services, which the court found allowed exemptions, and therefore they found that this wasn't a neutrally applicable nondiscrimination ordinance.

SHAPIRO: So it sounds like you're saying this might not have the broad, sweeping implications that an opinion written a different way would.

COOK: Exactly. This does not have broad, sweeping implications. And in fact, the court recognized that - the importance of nondiscrimination protections for LGBTQ foster and adoptive parents and people in the opinion. So it is not a broad, sweeping ruling permitting religious discrimination with government funds.

SHAPIRO: And yet this decision is consistent with a 2018 Supreme Court case which didn't involve a local government. But in that one, the justices favored religious freedom over gay rights, siding with a baker who refused to make a cake for a same-sex couple. And so it seems like the U.S. legal system right now is generally valuing religious freedom over gay rights. Would you say that's the case?

COOK: I definitely think that certain proponents of that theory would like for there to be religious exemptions to nondiscrimination laws and allow religious freedom to carry the day and allow folks to discriminate in the name of religion. But the Supreme Court did not endorse such a principle today, nor did they in Masterpiece Cakeshop - in fact, just the opposite. They said that you can have nondiscrimination protections in place, you just can't have religious animus. And in this case, you can't have exemptions to a contract. It must be generally applicable.

SHAPIRO: In this specific case, the Catholic Social Services organization said no same-sex couple had ever applied to them to be foster parents and, that if they had, the group would have referred the couple to another agency. And there are dozens of other agencies in Philadelphia that gay parents can work with. So do you think the city of Philadelphia picked the wrong fight here by refusing to work with the group?

COOK: I think the city of Philadelphia was doing exactly what a government entity should do. It's critically important for cities like Philadelphia, states that are administering their child welfare system to do so in a non-discriminatory manner consistent with child welfare standards, particularly because we know LGBTQ youth are vastly overrepresented in the child welfare system compared to their presence in the general population and often exit care to homelessness because of a lack of affirming placement. So making sure that we have all homes that are available to care for them is critically important.

SHAPIRO: You know, even if this is a narrowly written ruling, as you say, the Supreme Court is more conservative than it was just a few years ago and has consistently shown an inclination to side with religious freedom over competing interests. Does that change your strategy as an LGBT rights organization going forward?

COOK: Well, I think it's really important to center the conversation in what the majority of Americans think, which is that LGBTQ folks should be treated with dignity and respect and that non-discrimination principles are critically important. And so...

SHAPIRO: But Lambda Legal is a legal organization. I mean, you're not fighting for votes at the polls. You're fighting for wins in court, right?

COOK: Absolutely. But I think our our legal strategy is is the same, which is to make sure that we're, you know, employing the important protections in the Constitution under equal protection and due process and the establishment clause and making sure that, when folks are accessing services, that it's their interest in equity and equality that carries the day versus any attempt to discriminate or turn them away because of who they are or who they love.

SHAPIRO: That's Currey Cook, senior counsel at Lambda Legal. Thank you so much.

COOK: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Ari Shapiro has been one of the hosts of All Things Considered, NPR's award-winning afternoon newsmagazine, since 2015. During his first two years on the program, listenership to All Things Considered grew at an unprecedented rate, with more people tuning in during a typical quarter-hour than any other program on the radio.
Justine Kenin
Justine Kenin is an editor on All Things Considered. She joined NPR in 1999 as an intern. Nothing makes her happier than getting a book in the right reader's hands – most especially her own.