Appellate Advocacy Blog

Editor: Tessa L. Dysart
The University of Arizona
James E. Rogers College of Law

Sunday, June 20, 2021

Fulton v. City of Philadelphia: Chief Justice Roberts Issues Another Disappointing Decision

In Fulton v. City of Philadelphia, the United States Supreme Court confronted the question of whether the City of Philadelphia could deny a contract to a Catholic foster care agency (Catholic Social Services) because the agency refused to provide service to same-sex couples.[1] The city argued that the agency's policy violated the city’s anti-discrimination law, which prohibits discrimination based on, among other things sexual orientation.[2]

By way of background, in Employment Division v. Smith, the Court held that neutral laws of general applicability that incidentally burden religion do not violate the Free Exercise Clause of the First Amendment.[3] Writing on behalf of the majority, Justice Antonin Scalia relied in part on Reynolds v. United States to hold that the Free Exercise Clause does not permit religious organizations to receive exemptions from generally applicable laws.[4] Justice Scalia reasoned that to allow such exemptions “would be to make the professed doctrines of religious belief superior to the law of the land, and in effect to permit every citizen to become a law unto himself."[5] Justice Scalia held that religious exemptions could be granted only when an alleged violation of religious liberty was coupled with a violation of another constitutional right.[6] For example, in Wisconsin v. Yoder, the Court held that the parents of an Amish child were exempt from a generally applicable law requiring all children to attend public school until the age of sixteen because the law infringed on both the parents’ religious liberty and the fundamental right to direct the upbringing of their children.[7]

The Court’s decision in Smith has proved quite controversial, as some argue that it is inconsistent with the original purpose of the Free Exercise Clause.[8] And Smith has been implicated in recent disputes involving the balance between accommodating individuals’ religious beliefs and protecting citizens against discrimination.  For example, in Masterpiece Cakeshop v. Colorado Civil Rights Commission, a cakeshop owner refused to design a custom wedding cake for a same-sex couple, arguing that doing so would violate his religious beliefs.[9] The State of Colorado argued that the cakeshop owner's refusal violated its generally applicable anti-discrimination law, which prohibited discrimination based on sexual orientation.[10]  The facts in Masterpiece Cakeshop arguably presented the Court with the issue of whether Smith should be overruled.

But the Court avoided the question.

Instead, it ruled on very narrow grounds, holding that the Colorado Civil Rights Commission had demonstrated hostility toward the cakeshop owner’s religion when addressing his claim.[11] As a result, Masterpiece Cakeshop resolved nothing. The decision provided no clarity or guidance to courts and citizens regarding the Free Exercise Clause. It was a missed opportunity.

Not surprisingly, three years later in Fulton, the same issue arose again when Philadelphia denied a contract to Catholic Social Services because it refused to offer services to same-sex couples. As in Masterpiece Cakeshop, the Court was faced with the question of whether Smith should be overruled.

Yet again, the Court avoided the question.

Instead, in an opinion by Chief Justice Roberts, the Court issued a very narrow decision in favor of Catholic Social Services, holding that Philadelphia’s anti-discrimination law was not generally applicable because the city retained the discretion to grant exemptions to the law.[12] This led to a narrow, unanimous ruling for Catholic Social Services. But again, the decision failed to resolve the underlying question of whether Smith should be overruled and avoided addressing how to balance an individual’s right to religious liberty against another individual’s right to be free from unlawful discrimination. The result is that one of the most sacrosanct constitutional rights – the free exercise of religion – is now marred in constitutional purgatory, with no clarification or guidance about the scope of this right and the limits on state power. 

Fulton was legal gymnastics at its finest. And politics at its worst.

Sadly, the decision in Fulton is yet another example of Chief Justice Roberts's disappointing jurisprudence.

To be clear, by all accounts Chief Justice Roberts is a brilliant and ethical jurist – and a great person. Roberts is deeply committed to preserving the Court’s institutional legitimacy and to avoiding the perception that politics and ideology motivate the Court’s decisions. To that end, Roberts strives to achieve consensus on the Court and avoid controversial 5-4 decisions. To reach consensus, Roberts seeks to decide each case on the narrowest ground possible, which often has the effect, as in Masterpiece Cakeshop and Fulton¸ of rarely addressing the fundamental constitutional issues that undergird many cases and, concomitantly, failing to clarify the law.

The ugly truth about this approach is that it causes precisely what Chief Justice Roberts hopes to avoid: it politicizes the Court, undermines its institutional legitimacy, and destabilizes the rule of law.  And it causes Roberts to become precisely what he disavows: a political actor.

As stated above, it is politics at its worst.

Unfortunately, even a cursory examination of Roberts’s jurisprudence in recent years reveals that his decisions often result from political calculations rather than principled constitutional considerations.

Indeed, Roberts’s decision in Fulton was eerily reminiscent of his decision in National Federation of Independent Investors v. Sebelius, where the primary issue confronting the Court was whether the Affordable Care Act violated the Commerce Clause.[13] Roberts agreed that the Act violated the Commerce Clause, yet after initially voting to invalidate the Act, Roberts reversed course and concluded that the Act was a proper exercise of Congress’s taxing power.[14] It was apparent that Roberts was trying to find a way – any way – to avoid issuing a decision that might compromise the Court’s legitimacy, lead to a divisive decision, and be perceived as political.

Yet, Roberts created precisely that result. The Court’s legitimacy was damaged because the decision was so obviously based on political calculations, not constitutional principles.

This is not the first time that Roberts has engaged in legal gymnastics that elevate politics over the rule of law and provide no clarity, guidance, stability, or predictability on important legal issues affecting civil rights and liberties. For example, in June Medical Services v. Russo, Roberts concurred in a decision that invalidated a Louisiana law requiring abortion providers to have hospital admitting privileges.[15] Roberts argued that, based on the Court’s decision in Whole Women’s Health v. Hellerstadt, where it invalidated a nearly identical law in Texas (although Roberts dissented), principles of stare decisis required him to invalidate the Louisiana law.

But Roberts’s jurisprudence shows that he has an on-again, off-again relationship with stare decisis.  In Janus v. American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees, Council 31, which addressed a union’s ability to collect fees from non-union members, Roberts joined the majority in overruling Abood v. Detroit Board of Education, which had been valid law for over forty years.[16] And in Citizens United v. FEC, Roberts joined a 5-4 majority that invalidated a federal law restricting independent expenditures from corporations; in so holding, the Court overruled Austin v. Michigan Chamber of Commerce, which held that restrictions on corporate speech did not violate the First Amendment.[17] Thus, Roberts’s reliance on stare decisis in June Medical Services was about as disingenuous and manipulative as it gets. Simply put, when a concern for institutional legitimacy triumphs over the rule of law, the result is an unprincipled jurisprudence that at its core is political.

If Chief Justice Roberts values the Court’s institutional legitimacy, he should prioritize the rule of law and base his decisions on reasonable interpretations of the Constitution. He should stop avoiding the real issues that are presented in each case. He should make decisions based on what he believes, not on how others may react to a particular decision. In doing so, Roberts would demonstrate that he is faithful to the Constitution and the rule of law, and that his decisions are based on principle, not politics.

To date, sadly, Chief Justice Roberts has become the Court’s most political actor. And the Court is unquestionably a political institution.

 

[1]  No. 19-123, available at: 19-123 Fulton v. Philadelphia (06/17/2021) (supremecourt.gov)

[2] See id.

[3] 494 U.S. 872 (1990).

[4] See id.

[5] Id.

[6] See id.

[7] 406 U.S. 205 (1972).

[8] See Brief of Amicus Curiae Center for Constitutional Jurisprudence in Support of Petitioners, available at: 20200602142513866_19-123 CCJ tsac.pdf (supremecourt.gov)

[9] 138 S. Ct. 1719 (2018)

[10] See id.

[11] See id.

[12] No. 19-123, available at: 19-123 Fulton v. Philadelphia (06/17/2021) (supremecourt.gov)

[13] 567 U.S. 519 (2012).

[14] See id.

[15] 2020 WL 3492640 (2020)

[16]  138 S. Ct. 2448.

[17]  558 U.S. 310 (2010).

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