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Will Catholic justices on the US Supreme Court be influenced by the pope’s softer stance on same-sex couples?

Same sex couple receiving a blessing by a priest in Germany.
Same-sex couples take part in a public blessing in front of the Cologne Cathedral in Cologne, Germany, on Sept. 20, 2023. Pope Francis has formally approved allowing priests to bless same-sex couples with a new document released Monday Dec. 18, 2023, which explains that people seeking God’s love and mercy shouldn’t be subject to “an exhaustive moral analysis” to receive it. AP Photo/Martin Meissner

Pope Francis allowing the blessings of same-sex couples is unlikely to impact future rulings made by Catholic justices of the U.S. Supreme Court regarding LGBTQ+ rights, Northeastern experts say.

The declaration by the Vatican this week allows priests to bless couples “in irregular situations,” but the blessings should not resemble a religious marriage ceremony and do not officially validate a couple’s status.

Headshot of Jeremy Paul (left) and Libby Adler (right).
Northeastern University Professors of Law Jeremy Paul and Libby Adler. Photo by Alyssa Stone/Northeastern University and Northeastern University Photo

The pope’s decision can be viewed as a positive first step, according to Libby Adler, professor of law and women’s, gender and sexuality studies at Northeastern University.

Before many U.S. states legalized same-sex marriage, she says, they allowed civil unions.

“It was not genuine equality,” Adler says. “But it wound up being a step along the path to same-sex marriage — sort of a strategy of gradual normalization.”

Jeremy Paul, professor of law at Northeastern, believes the pope’s decision reflects a greater acceptance of same-sex relationships.

But will the softening stance by the head of the Catholic Church result in the expansion of LGBTQ+ rights in the U.S.?

It’s fair to speculate, Paul says, whether the personal views of justices might influence their judicial decisions. After all, six Supreme Court justices — the majority — are either devout Catholics or were raised Catholic, he says.

Samuel Alito, the justice who authored the deciding opinion that overturned Roe v. Wade, told law students at Catholic University in September 2022 that faith “should affect the way you treat [people] when you’re serving as a judge.”

In his concurring opinion in the Dobbs case, Justice Clarence Thomas said the Supreme Court “should reconsider” its past rulings codifying rights to same-sex intimacy and same-sex marriage.

In June, the court ruled that a Colorado web designer could refuse to design wedding websites for same-sex couples. Justice Neil Gorsuch said the First Amendment protected the designer.

Any judge, Paul says, could take up a position that legislators can pass a law permitting same-sex marriage, but the Constitution does not require the court to do that.

“The argument in the same-sex marriage case is not about whether same-sex couples even shouldn’t be permitted,” Paul says. “It’s about whether the Constitution requires that they be permitted.”

The pope’s decision might trigger shifts in the international acceptance of same-sex relationships, Paul says, but the current U.S. Supreme Court has not been as sensitive to international public opinion as some previous courts.

Paul does not see justices taking up a case where a U.S.-based Catholic priest, for example, refuses to bless a same-sex couple despite the pope’s approval.

“If an individual priest or a local bishop doesn’t agree with the pope, the courts are not going to tell them that they have to do what the pope says,” Paul says. 

The case about the web designer involved a commercial enterprise, he says, which arguably has a strong secular component, in addition to a religious component.

“But if you’re doing a blessing, that’s a religious thing,” Paul says.

The Constitution protects freedom of exercising one’s religion, he says.