In a split decision, a federal appeals court today dismissed a suit filed by a Roman Catholic group that challenged the San Francisco Board of Supervisors’ condemnation of the church’s opposition to adoptions by same-sex couples.
The case centered on a 2006 board resolution denouncing a statement in which former Archbishop William Levada, who is now a cardinal, said Catholic agencies should not place children for adoption in homosexual households.
The non-binding resolution said Levada’s statement was discriminatory, “absolutely unacceptable to the citizenry of San Francisco,” and “hateful.”
The lawsuit by the New York-based Catholic League for Religious and Civil Rights and two individual Catholics claimed the resolution violated the U.S. Constitution’s requirement of government neutrality toward religion.
The league appealed to an 11-judge panel of the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals after a federal trial judge and a three-judge panel of the appeals court dismissed the case.
In today’s decision, the larger panel upheld the dismissal by an 8-3 vote, but for two different reasons.
Five judges on the panel said the league had no standing, or legal right, to sue. Three others said the group was entitled to file a lawsuit, but they said the case should be dismissed because the resolution had a primarily secular purpose.
Judge Barry Silverman wrote, “A church has every right to take a firm moral position on secular issues, but it has no right to prevent public officials from criticizing its position – especially when one of its clergy fires the first salvo.”
The three judges in the minority said both that the league had standing to sue and that the resolution “explicitly entangles itself in church governance.”
Daniel Piedra, a spokesman for the Thomas More Law Center, said the Catholic league would appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court. The Michigan-based Christian advocacy group represented the league in the case.
Deputy San Francisco City Attorney Vince Chhabria said, “We are glad the court declined to rule that San Francisco legislators are prohibited from speaking out on public policy issues that are important to their constituents.
“We’re confident that the U.S. Supreme Court also would not muzzle San Francisco policymakers in the manner sought by the plaintiffs.”
Julia Cheever, Bay City News