Argued November 4, 2020—Decided June 17, 2021


ROBERTS, C. J., delivered the opinion of the Court, in which BREYER, SOTOMAYOR, KAGAN, KAVANAUGH, and BARRETT, JJ., joined. BARRETT, J., filed a concurring opinion, in which KAVANAUGH, J., joined, and in which BREYER, J., joined as to all but the first paragraph. ALITO, J., filed an opinion concurring in the judgment, in which THOMAS and GORSUCH, JJ., joined. GORSUCH, J., filed an opinion concurring in the judgment, in which THOMAS and ALITO, JJ., joined.

CHIEF JUSTICE ROBERTS delivered the opinion of the Court.

Catholic Social Services is a foster care agency in Philadelphia. The City stopped referring children to CSS upon discovering that the agency would not certify same-sex couples to be foster parents due to its religious beliefs about marriage. The City will renew its foster care contract with CSS only if the agency agrees to certify same-sex couples.

The question presented is whether the actions of Philadelphia violate the First Amendment.


The Catholic Church has served the needy children of Philadelphia for over two centuries. In 1798, a priest in the City organized an association to care for orphans whose parents had died in a yellow fever epidemic. When criticism of asylums mounted in the Progressive Era, the Church established the Catholic Children’s Bureau to place children in foster homes. Petitioner CSS continues that mission today.

The Philadelphia foster care system depends on cooperation between the City and private foster agencies like CSS. When children cannot remain in their homes, the City’s Department of Human Services assumes custody of them. The Department enters standard annual contracts with private foster agencies to place some of those children with foster families.

The placement process begins with review of prospective foster families. Pennsylvania law gives the authority to certify foster families to state-licensed foster agencies like CSS. Before certifying a family, an agency must conduct a home study during which it considers statutory criteria including the family’s “ability to provide care, nurturing and supervision to children,” “[e]xisting family relationships,” and ability “to work in partnership” with a foster agency. The agency must decide whether to “approve, disapprove or provisionally approve the foster family.”

When the Department seeks to place a child with a foster family, it sends its contracted agencies a request, known as a referral. The agencies report whether any of their certified families are available, and the Department places the child with what it regards as the most suitable family. The agency continues to support the family throughout the placement.

The religious views of CSS inform its work in this system. CSS believes that “marriage is a sacred bond between a man and a woman.” Because the agency understands the certification of prospective foster families to be an endorsement of their relationships, it will not certify unmarried couples—regardless of their sexual orientation—or same-sex married couples. CSS does not object to certifying gay or lesbian individuals as single foster parents or to placing gay and lesbian children. No same-sex couple has ever sought certification from CSS. If one did, CSS would direct the couple to one of the more than 20 other agencies in the City, all of which currently certify same-sex couples.

For over 50 years, CSS successfully contracted with the City to provide foster care services while holding to these beliefs. But things changed in 2018. After receiving a complaint about a different agency, a newspaper ran a story in which a spokesman for the Archdiocese of Philadelphia stated that CSS would not be able to consider prospective foster parents in same-sex marriages. The City Council called for an investigation, saying that the City had “laws in place to protect its people from discrimination that occurs under the guise of religious freedom.” The Philadelphia Commission on Human Relations launched an inquiry. And the Commissioner of the Department of Human Services held a meeting with the leadership of CSS. She remarked that “things have changed since 100 years ago,” and “it would be great if we followed the teachings of Pope Francis, the voice of the Catholic Church.” Immediately after the meeting, the Department informed CSS that it would no longer refer children to the agency.

The City later explained that the refusal of CSS to certify same-sex couples violated a non-discrimination provision in its contract with the City as well as the non-discrimination requirements of the citywide Fair Practices Ordinance. The City stated that it would not enter a full foster care contract with CSS in the future unless the agency agreed to certify same-sex couples.

CSS and three foster parents affiliated with the agency filed suit against the City, the Department, and the Commission. The Support Center for Child Advocates and Philadelphia Family Pride intervened as defendants. As relevant here, CSS alleged that the referral freeze violated the Free Exercise and Free Speech Clauses of the First Amendment. CSS sought a temporary restraining order and preliminary injunction directing the Department to continue referring children to CSS without requiring the agency to certify same-sex couples.

The District Court denied preliminary relief. It concluded that the contractual non-discrimination requirement and the Fair Practices Ordinance were neutral and generally applicable under Employment Division, Department of Human Resources of Oregon v. Smith (1990), and that the free exercise claim was therefore unlikely to succeed. The Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit affirmed.  . . .

We granted certiorari.



The Free Exercise Clause of the First Amendment, applicable to the States under the Fourteenth Amendment, provides that “Congress shall make no law . . . prohibiting the free exercise” of religion. As an initial matter, it is plain that the City’s actions have burdened CSS’s religious exercise by putting it to the choice of curtailing its mission or approving relationships inconsistent with its beliefs. The City disagrees. In its view, certification reflects only that foster parents satisfy the statutory criteria, not that the agency endorses their relationships. But CSS believes that certification is tantamount to endorsement. And “religious beliefs need not be acceptable, logical, consistent, or comprehensible to others in order to merit First Amendment protection.”

Our task is to decide whether the burden the City has placed on the religious exercise of CSS is constitutionally permissible. Smith held that laws incidentally burdening religion are ordinarily not subject to strict scrutiny under the Free Exercise Clause so long as they are neutral and generally applicable. CSS urges us to overrule Smith, and the concurrences in the judgment argue in favor of doing so. But we need not revisit that decision here. This case falls outside Smith because the City has burdened the religious exercise of CSS through policies that do not meet the requirement of being neutral and generally applicable. See Church of Lukumi Babalu Aye (1993).

Government fails to act neutrally when it proceeds in a manner intolerant of religious beliefs or restricts practices because of their religious nature. CSS points to evidence in the record that it believes demonstrates that the City has transgressed this neutrality standard, but we find it more straightforward to resolve this case under the rubric of general applicability.

A law is not generally applicable if it “invite[s]” the government to consider the particular reasons for a person’s conduct by providing “‘a mechanism for individualized exemptions.’” For example, in Sherbert v. Verner (1963), a Seventh-day Adventist was fired because she would not work on Saturdays. Unable to find a job that would allow her to keep the Sabbath as her faith required, she applied for unemployment benefits. The State denied her application under a law prohibiting eligibility to claimants who had “failed, without good cause . . . to accept available suitable work. We held that the denial infringed her free exercise rights and could be justified only by a compelling interest.

Smith later explained that the unemployment benefits law in Sherbert was not generally applicable because the “good cause” standard permitted the government to grant exemptions based on the circumstances underlying each application. Smith went on to hold that “where the State has in place a system of individual exemptions, it may not refuse to extend that system to cases of ‘religious hardship’ without compelling reason.”

A law also lacks general applicability if it prohibits religious conduct while permitting secular conduct that undermines the government’s asserted interests in a similar way. In Church of Lukumi Babalu Aye, Inc. v. Hialeah, for instance, the City of Hialeah adopted several ordinances prohibiting animal sacrifice, a practice of the Santeria faith. The City claimed that the ordinances were necessary in part to protect public health, which was “threatened by the disposal of animal carcasses in open public places.” But the ordinances did not regulate hunters’ disposal of their kills or improper garbage disposal by restaurants, both of which posed a similar hazard. The Court concluded that this and other forms of underinclusiveness meant that the ordinances were not generally applicable.


The City initially argued that CSS’s practice violated section 3.21 of its standard foster care contract. We conclude, however, that this provision is not generally applicable as required by Smith. The current version of section 3.21 specifies in pertinent part: “Rejection of Referral. Provider shall not reject a child or family including, but not limited to, . . . prospective foster or adoptive parents, for Services based upon . . . their . . . sexual orientation . . . unless an exception is granted by the Commissioner or the Commissioner’s designee, in his/her sole discretion.”

This provision requires an agency to provide “Services,” defined as “the work to be performed under this Contract,” to prospective foster parents regardless of their sexual orientation. Like the good cause provision in Sherbert, section 3.21 incorporates a system of individual exemptions, made available in this case at the “sole discretion” of the Commissioner. The City has made clear that the Commissioner “has no intention of granting an exception” to CSS. But the City “may not refuse to extend that [exemption] system to cases of ‘religious hardship’ without compelling reason” . . . .

The concurrence objects that no party raised these arguments in this Court. But CSS, supported by the United States, contended that the City’s “made-for-CSS Section 3.21 permits discretionary ‘exception[s]’ from the requirement ‘not [to] reject a child or family’ based upon ‘their . . . sexual orientation,’” which “alone triggers strict scrutiny” . . . .


The contractual non-discrimination requirement imposes a burden on CSS’s religious exercise and does not qualify as generally applicable. The concurrence protests that the “Court granted certiorari to decide whether to overrule [Smith],” and chides the Court for seeking to “sidestep the question.” But the Court also granted review to decide whether Philadelphia’s actions were permissible under our precedents.

CSS has demonstrated that the City’s actions are subject to “the most rigorous of scrutiny” under those precedents. Because the City’s actions are therefore examined under the strictest scrutiny regardless of Smith, we have no occasion to reconsider that decision here.

A government policy can survive strict scrutiny only if it advances “interests of the highest order” and is narrowly tailored to achieve those interests. Put another way, so long as the government can achieve its interests in a manner that does not burden religion, it must do so.

The City asserts that its non-discrimination policies serve three compelling interests: maximizing the number of foster parents, protecting the City from liability, and ensuring equal treatment of prospective foster parents and foster children. The City states these objectives at a high level of generality, but the First Amendment demands a more precise analysis. Rather than rely on “broadly formulated interests,” courts must “scrutinize[] the asserted harm of granting specific exemptions to particular religious claimants.” The question, then, is not whether the City has a compelling interest in enforcing its non-discrimination policies generally, but whether it has such an interest in denying an exception to CSS.

Once properly narrowed, the City’s asserted interests are insufficient. Maximizing the number of foster families and minimizing liability are important goals, but the City fails to show that granting CSS an exception will put those goals at risk. If anything, including CSS in the program seems likely to increase, not reduce, the number of available foster parents. As for liability, the City offers only speculation that it might be sued over CSS’s certification practices.

Such speculation is insufficient to satisfy strict scrutiny, particularly because the authority to certify foster families is delegated to agencies by the State, not the City. That leaves the interest of the City in the equal treatment of prospective foster parents and foster children. We do not doubt that this interest is a weighty one, for “[o]ur society has come to the recognition that gay persons and gay couples cannot be treated as social outcasts or as inferior in dignity and worth.” On the facts of this case, however, this interest cannot justify denying CSS an exception for its religious exercise. The creation of a system of exceptions under the contract undermines the City’s contention that its nondiscrimination policies can brook no departures. The City offers no compelling reason why it has a particular interest in denying an exception to CSS while making them available to others.

* * *

As Philadelphia acknowledges, CSS has “long been a point of light in the City’s foster-care system.” 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.

JUSTICE BARRETT, with whom JUSTICE KAVANAUGH joins, and with whom JUSTICE BREYER joins as to all but the first paragraph, concurring.

 In Employment Div., Dept. of Human Resources of Ore. v. Smith (1990), this Court held that a neutral and generally applicable law typically does not violate the Free Exercise Clause—no matter how severely that law burdens religious exercise. Petitioners, their amici, scholars, and Justices of this Court have made serious arguments that Smith ought to be overruled. While history looms large in this debate, I find the historical record more silent than supportive on the question whether the founding generation understood the First Amendment to require religious exemptions from generally applicable laws in at least some circumstances. In my view, the textual and structural arguments against Smith are more compelling.

As a matter of text and structure, it is difficult to see why the Free Exercise Clause—lone among the First Amendment freedoms—offers nothing more than protection from discrimination.

Yet what should replace Smith? The prevailing assumption seems to be that strict scrutiny would apply whenever a neutral and generally applicable law burdens religious exercise. But I am skeptical about swapping Smith’s categorical antidiscrimination approach for an equally categorical strict scrutiny regime, particularly when this Court’s resolution of conflicts between generally applicable laws and other First Amendment rights—like speech and assembly—has been much more nuanced. There would be a number of issues to work through if Smith were overruled.

To name a few: Should entities like Catholic Social Services—which is an arm of the Catholic Church—be treated differently than individuals? Should there be a distinction between indirect and direct burdens on religious exercise?  And if the answer is strict scrutiny, would pre-Smith cases rejecting free exercise challenges to garden-variety laws come out the same way?

We need not wrestle with these questions in this case, though, because the same standard applies regardless whether Smith stays or goes. A longstanding tenet of our free exercise jurisprudence—one that both pre-dates and survives Smith—is that a law burdening religious exercise must satisfy strict scrutiny if it gives government officials discretion to grant individualized exemptions. . . .


JUSTICE ALITO, with whom JUSTICE THOMAS and JUSTICE GORSUCH join, concurring in the judgment.

This case presents an important constitutional question that urgently calls out for review: whether this Court’s governing interpretation of a bedrock constitutional right, the right to the free exercise of religion, is fundamentally wrong and should be corrected.

 In Employment Div., Dept. of Human Resources of Ore. v.Smith (1990), the Court abruptly pushed aside nearly 40 years of precedent and held that the First Amendment’s Free Exercise Clause tolerates any rule that categorically prohibits or commands specified conduct so long as it does not target religious practice. Even if a rule serves no important purpose and has a devastating effect on religious freedom, the Constitution, according to Smith, provides no protection. This severe holding is ripe for reexamination.


There is no question that Smith’s interpretation can have startling consequences. Here are a few examples. Suppose that the Volstead Act, which implemented the Prohibition Amendment, had not contained an exception for sacramental wine. The Act would have been consistent with Smith even though it would have prevented the celebration of a Catholic Mass anywhere in the United States. Or suppose that a State, following the example of several European countries, made it unlawful to slaughter an animal that had not first been rendered unconscious. That law would be fine under Smith even though it would outlaw kosher and halal slaughter. Or suppose that a jurisdiction in this country, following the recommendations of medical associations in Europe, banned the circumcision of infants. A San Francisco ballot initiative in 2010 proposed just that. A categorical ban would be allowed by Smith even though it would prohibit an ancient and important Jewish and Muslim practice. Or suppose that this Court or some other court enforced a rigid rule prohibiting attorneys from wearing any form of head covering in court. The rule would satisfy Smith even though it would prevent Orthodox Jewish men, Sikh men, and many Muslim women from appearing. Many other examples could be added.

We may hope that legislators and others with rulemaking authority will not go as far as Smith allows, but the present case shows that the dangers posed by Smith are not hypothetical.. . .

We should reconsider Smith without further delay. The correct interpretation of the Free Exercise Clause is a question of great importance, and Smith’s interpretation is hard to defend. It can’t be squared with the ordinary meaning of the text of the Free Exercise Clause or with the prevalent understanding of the scope of the free-exercise right at the time of the First Amendment’s adoption. It swept aside decades of established precedent, and it has not aged well. Its interpretation has been undermined by subsequent scholarship on the original meaning of the Free Exercise Clause.

Contrary to what many initially expected, Smith has not provided a clear-cut rule that is easy to apply, and experience has disproved the Smith majority’s fear that retention of the Court’s prior free-exercise jurisprudence would lead to “anarchy.”

When Smith reinterpreted the Free Exercise Clause, four Justices—Brennan, Marshall, Blackmun, and O’Connor—registered strong disagreement. After joining the Court, Justice Souter called for Smith to be reexamined. So have five sitting Justices. So have some of the country’s most distinguished scholars of the Religion Clauses. On two separate occasions, Congress, with virtual unanimity, expressed the view that Smith’s interpretation is contrary to our society’s deep-rooted commitment to religious liberty. In enacting the Religious Freedom Restoration Act of 1993, and the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act of 2000, Congress tried to restore the constitutional rule in place before Smith was handed down. Those laws, however, do not apply to most state action, and they leave huge gaps.

It is high time for us to take a fresh look at what the Free Exercise Clause demands. . . .


Smith was wrongly decided. As long as it remains on the books, it threatens a fundamental freedom. And while precedent should not lightly be cast aside, the Court’s error in Smith should now be corrected. . . .


If Smith is overruled, what legal standard should be applied in this case? The answer that comes most readily to mind is the standard that Smith replaced: A law that imposes a substantial burden on religious exercise can be sustained only if it is narrowly tailored to serve a compelling government interest.

Whether this test should be rephrased or supplemented with specific rules is a question that need not be resolved here because Philadelphia’s ouster of CSS from foster care work simply does not further any interest that can properly be protected in this case. As noted, CSS’s policy has not hindered any same-sex couples from becoming foster parents, and there is no threat that it will do so in the future. . . .

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