Ronda Goldfein, right, executive director of the AIDS Law Project of Pennsylvania and vice president of Safehouse, speaks with Jose Benitez, left, executive director of Prevention Point and Safehouse's president, at a 2019 meeting at the Heitzman Recreation Center in Philadelphia.

Ronda Goldfein, right, executive director of the AIDS Law Project of Pennsylvania and vice president of Safehouse, speaks with Jose Benitez, left, executive director of Prevention Point and Safehouse's president, at a 2019 meeting at the Heitzman Recreation Center in Philadelphia. (Tom Gralish/The Philadelphia Inquirer/TNS)

PHILADELPHIA — The U.S. Supreme Court has declined to hear an appeal in a case to open the nation’s first supervised injection site in Philadelphia — and Safehouse, the nonprofit hoping to open such a site, is now heading back to federal District Court.

In an order Tuesday, the justices turned down Safehouse’s petition to hear its arguments that federal law was not intended to criminalize the opening of sites where people in addiction could use drugs under medical supervision, be revived if they overdose, and access treatment.

Safehouse Vice President Ronda Goldfein says the nonprofit still hopes it can prevail on claims yet to be ruled on in lower courts — including its argument that Safehouse founders’ religious faiths compel them to save lives amid an overdose crisis that killed 1,214 Philadelphians in 2020, and that because the operation will be run entirely within Pennsylvania’s borders it should not rise to the level of federal concern.

It is also hoping the ongoing litigation will force the Justice Department to weigh in.

A spokesperson for the U.S. attorney’s office declined to comment Wednesday on the Supreme Court’s decision not to take up Safehouse’s case, but its lawyers are expected to respond soon to Safehouse’s religious arguments in a Philadelphia-based U.S. District Court.

Goldfein said she’s curious whether the Biden administration will take the same tack as the previous administration, which opposed such sites and sued to block the opening of one in Philadelphia, arguing it would run afoul of a 1980s law that made it illegal for anyone to operate a facility for the purpose of using illegal drugs.

Safehouse has countered that its primary purpose — preventing overdoses — doesn’t violate that law, and a U.S. District Court judge agreed. But a three-judge panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit overturned that decision.

Though the nation’s high court won’t be hearing the case, the continued litigation in Philadelphia’s federal courts “will be an opportunity to really see what the (Biden administration’s) position is,” Goldfein said. “This will be a public reveal of what they’re thinking.”

Goldfein said that Safehouse and its backers are committed to continuing the court fight to open a supervised injection site.

“Every day that we can’t open an evidence-based initiative to save lives is worrisome,” she said. “We are as committed as we were on day one. We believe in this.”

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