Court Rejects Catholic League Suit Challenging San Francisco Resolution

By Javier Lavagnino, Esq. on June 03, 2009 | Last updated on March 21, 2019

A federal court of appeals has rejected a civil rights lawsuit challenging a 2006 San Francisco Board of Supervisors resolution addressing a Catholic leader's directive on same-sex adoptions. The court ruled that the resolution did not have a predominantly religious purpose or an effect of expressing hostility towards the Catholic religion, but instead was "simply a statement of the Board's position on same-sex adoption."

However, taking a closer look, the language of the Board's non-binding resolution didn't exactly pull many punches, it should probably be noted. It urged Cardinal William Levada to withdraw his directive to the Archdiocese of San Francisco indicating that Catholic social services agencies should not place children in need of adoption with gay or lesbian couples. It went on to state that it was a "discriminatory and defamatory directive" that was "an insult to all San Franciscans", and "show[ed] a level of insensitivity and ignorance which has seldom been encountered..."

It didn't take much time after the passage of the resolution for the Catholic League for Religious and Civil Rights to sue the city claiming the resolution violated the Establishment Clause. The case highlights the distinction (imagined or real) between a statement that can be taken as one supporting for non-discrimination, on the one hand, or condemning a religious principle, on the other. Of course, it could do both, too.

At any rate, the Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit found that there was no Establishment Clause violation here. Using the long-established test for such cases, the court found that the Board's purpose in passing the resolution (despite the harsh language used therein) was primarily non-religious in nature. Specifically, its purpose was to promote the principle of non-discrimination in adoption. But what about the Catholic League's claim that this principle is hostile to Catholic religious tenets?

The court shot that down too, stating that sometimes principles can have both religious and secular facets, with homosexuality being one clear example. Despite the "dual nature of views on homosexuality", the fact that "some perspectives on gay and lesbian issues are rooted in religious belief cannot overwhelm the fact that gay and lesbian issues are also secular policy matters."

Furthermore, the resolution's primary effect was not primarily to disapprove of religion but instead to "champion same-sex families and nondiscrimination
as to gays and lesbians." And lastly, the non-binding resolution didn't excessively entangle the government with religion, particularly since the resolution enacted no policy or regulation.

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