How a Supreme Court Case on Foster Care May Affect This Woman

By Maureen Collins

Barronelle Stutzman is a talented floral artist in Washington state, and Sharonell Fulton is a devoted foster parent in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. These two Christian women live thousands of miles apart. But their powerful stands for religious freedom—at the U.S. Supreme Court—may be poised to bring them together, to the benefit of us all.

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Let me explain.

Philadelphia Is Wrongly Preventing Sharonell From Fostering Children in Need

In the past 25 years, Sharonell Fulton has cared for more than 40 foster children in her home. “Mostly what I’ve done is emergency placement, so that means that they’ve been taken from their family and they don’t understand why. They’re hurting,” she says of the children she’s cared for.

Sadly, many of Philadelphia’s children remain desperate to find a loving and caring family to give them the kind of home that Sharonell has given to so many. In fact, just two years ago the City of Philadelphia put out an urgent call seeking at least 300 more foster parents for children in need of care.

Remarkably, only days later, the city cut ties with Catholic Social Services and the close to 100 different foster families that the agency serves—including Sharonell.

Why? Because Philadelphia disagrees with Catholic Social Services’ religious views on marriage.

It didn’t matter that, on an average day, Catholic Social Services served more than 120 children in foster care. Nor did it matter that more homes for children were desperately needed. Philadelphia put politics ahead of kids, kicking loving foster parents like Sharonell to the curb while leaving countless children stranded in need of loving homes.

This is wrong and unconstitutional. The Constitution prohibits government bureaucrats from excluding people of faith from serving children and families in their communities.

So Sharonell, another foster mom, and Catholic Social Services asked the Supreme Court to end Philadelphia’s discriminatory policy. And on February 24, the Court announced that it would hear their case, Fulton v. City of Philadelphia. If the Supreme Court rules in Sharonell’s favor, it could finally discard a decades-old legal test from the 1990 case Employment Division v. Smith.

And if that happens, it would be great news for Barronelle Stutzman.

The Supreme Court’s Decision in Sharonell’s Case Could Protect People of Faith Like Barronelle

Before Employment Division v. Smith, if a law substantially burdened a person or organization’s religious liberty and the government could not prove that the law was justified, the law violated the Free Exercise Clause of the First Amendment. The burden of proof was rightly on the government, not the person or organization whose religious freedom was at stake.

Following Smith, though, the government only has to justify its actions after a religious person or organization shows the law is not neutral or generally applicable. The burden is on the faithful to demonstrate either that a law is not neutral because it targets or disfavors religion, or that a law is not generally applicable because it treats secular conduct better than religious exercise.   

This certainly isn’t what the Founders had in mind when they protected the freedom of religion in the First Amendment. Military conscription is the epitome of a neutral and generally applicable law. But the Founders freed religious pacifists from that burden even during the darkest days of the Revolutionary War.

So, Alliance Defending Freedom filed a friend-of-the-court brief in Sharonell’s case asking the Court to overturn Smith and restore the freedom of religion to its “preferred place” in our Constitution. If the Court does this and forces government to justify all of its burdens on religion, then people of faith will have a better path to protecting their God-given freedoms in court.

This includes people of faith like Barronelle Stutzman.

Barronelle Has a Right to Live According to Her Beliefs  

After over seven years in legal battles, Barronelle is still waiting for justice.

By now, you’ve probably heard her story. Barronelle is a floral artist and the owner of Arlene’s Flowers in Washington State.

Barronelle served her friend and customer Rob Ingersoll for more than nine years, creating custom floral arrangements for Mother’s Day, Valentine’s Day, and other special occasions. In 2013, Rob asked Barronelle to design custom flowers for his same-sex wedding. Barronelle loves Rob deeply, but she knew she could not use her floral art to celebrate that particular event.

Instead, Barronelle took Rob aside, told him how much she cared for him, and explained why her faith would not allow her to participate in his wedding. Barronelle referred Rob to three nearby floral artists she knew would do a good job. Rob said he understood, and the two hugged before Rob left the shop. It should have been over there. After all, Barronelle serves everyone—she would happily serve Rob today if he walked into her store—but she cannot create every message with her floral art.

But then the state of Washington and the American Civil Liberties Union got involved.

After seeing news reports that resulted from Rob’s partner writing a social media post, the Washington attorney general concocted a one-of-a-kind lawsuit and sued Barronelle in both her professional and personal capacities. To this day, Barronelle risks losing almost everything in this case, including her business and her life’s savings.

In 2018, the U.S. Supreme Court sent Barronelle’s case back to the Washington Supreme Court for a rehearing following the Court’s decision in Masterpiece Cakeshop v. Colorado Civil Rights Commission, where the Court delivered a victory for cake artist and ADF client Jack Phillips. But the Washington Supreme Court doubled down against Barronelle, repeating much of its previous opinion verbatim.

So Barronelle, who has been in court since 2013, had to go back to the U.S. Supreme Court once again. The Court has not said whether it will hear her case. But if the Court rules in Sharonell’s favor in Fulton, it is quite possible the Court will also rule for Barronelle, either directly or by sending Barronelle’s case back to the Washington Supreme Court to afford greater protections to Barronelle’s religious freedom.

The Supreme Court Should Protect Religious Liberty

Every Supreme Court decision has consequences.

People of faith today are still paying the price for the Court’s decision in Smith 30 years ago.

It’s harming foster parents like Sharonell Fulton who want to continue providing loving homes for children in need. It’s harming society’s most vulnerable children, those in need of a forever family. And it’s hurting business owners like Barronelle Stutzman who simply want to continue serving their communities without compromising their religious beliefs.

We’re praying the Court rules to protect Sharonell’s rights and establishes a new test faithful to the Free Exercise Clause’s text and history that will protect Barronelle too.

Because every single American has a right to live according to their beliefs. That includes foster-care mothers and floral artists alike.

Maureen Collins is a writer for ADF Legal.