– The City of Philadelphia is selectively targeting religious foster agencies that cannot place children with same-sex couples, and a federal court wrongly ignored the legal protections affirmed in recent U.S. Supreme Court decisions like Masterpiece Cakeshop, lawyers for the Philadelphia-based Catholic Social Services and several foster parents have said in an appeal.
“The city’s policy prohibits Catholic Social Services from placing at-risk children in available homes solely because the city disagrees with the foster agency’s religious beliefs about marriage,” the legal group Becket said July 17.
The legal group saw a contradiction between the city’s policy and its call in March for 300 more homes willing to foster children, 6,000 of whom are in the city’s foster system.
“This discriminatory policy has caused devastating problems for at-risk children,” Becket said. “Although Catholic Social Services has dozens of open homes available right now, city officials won’t allow any children to be placed in them because they think the agency’s religious beliefs, which drive its mission to help children, are outdated and need to change.”
City officials have said that the Catholic agency’s refusal to place children with same-sex couples violates the Fair Practices Ordinance that prohibits city contractors from discriminating on the basis of sexual orientation.
U.S. District Judge Petrese B. Tucker on July 13 denied a request for a temporary restraining order that would allow the agency’s foster care work to continue, saying that “the pool of foster parents and resource caregivers is as diverse and broad as the children in need of foster parents.”
In response to the appeal, Deana Gamble, a city spokesperson, said “We are committed to ensuring that government services are provided in an accessible way to all Philadelphians and we must ensure that the foster care services CSS provides are done so in a non-discriminatory way according the Fair Practices Ordinance and our contracts.”
Sharonell Fulton, who has fostered over 40 children in 25 years through the agency, is also a party to the lawsuit.
“Catholic Social Services has meant so much to me and to the children I’ve loved and cared for,” she said. “I don’t understand why the city is threatening to shut down the agency that has given hope and a family to so many children.”
According to Becket’s July 16 motion to appeal Judge Tucker’s ruling, the city’s action violates both Pennsylvania law and the U.S. Constitution. The motion objected that the U.S. district court did not cite recent Supreme Court religious liberty and free speech decisions like Masterpiece Cakeshop v. Colorado Civil Rights Commission and Trinity Lutheran Church of Columbia, Inc. v. Comer.
A June hearing showed that the city policy is “directly motivated by religious hostility” and showed that “high-ranking City officials have criticized Catholic Social Services’ religious beliefs,” Becket’s motion charged.
The Catholic agency has been “the target of coordinated actions by every branch of city government,” Becket’s motion continued. It cited the city council’s passage of a resolution against “discrimination that occurs under the guise of religious freedom,” as well as other actions.
For instance, the Philadelphia Department of Human Services commissioner summoned the Catholic agency’s leadership to its headquarters, accused them of not following “the teachings of Pope Francis,” and telling them it was “not 100 years ago.”
The city told the agency that future contracts would explicitly require agencies to certify same-sex couples and that the city “has no intention of granting an exception” to the Catholic organization. The motion to appeal charged that the refusal to grant an exemption failed to pass legal scrutiny, given the existence of other relevant secular exemptions. It added that the city targeted religious agencies, not secular ones, for investigation.
The Catholic program will be forced to close if the contract isn’t restored. It has asked the Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit to issue an order by Aug. 2. The new policy has already forced the agency to move two employees to other offices in the archdiocese, Lori Windham, senior counsel at Becket, told the Philadelphia Inquirer.
Windham praised foster parents like Cecelia Paul, who has fostered over 100 children, and is another plaintiff in the suit.
“Foster children deserve loving homes, and foster parents like Ms. Paul have been waiting with open arms to welcome them,” said Windham. “But the trial court allowed the city to continue its harmful policy – a decision we expect to change with this appeal.”
Catholic Social Services has worked in the city for more than a century and has partnered with the City of Philadelphia for 50 years. The agency cannot provide foster services at all without a city contract. The agency aids the foster families it works with through provision of resources, training and guidance. The agency does this work because of its religious beliefs, Becket said.
In 2017 the Catholic agency placed 266 children and aided more than 2,200 children in the Philadelphia area.
Catholic Social Services has not been the subject of discrimination complaints by same-sex couples. The agency says that it assists all children in need, regardless of a child’s race, color, sex, religion, sexual orientation or gender identity.
In March, the Philadelphia Inquirer and Daily News reported that both the Catholic agency and Bethany Christian Services had a policy not to place children with same-sex couples. In response, Bethany Christian Services changed its policy. The city works with 29 foster care agencies in all.
At the time of the March news report, Department of Human Services spokeswoman Heather Keafer said both groups’ positions was “deeply concerning,” considering the city’s ongoing effort to recruit more self-identified LGBTQ people to become foster parents.
The American Civil Liberties Union of Pennsylvania has backed the city and has said the case could have consequences for similar cases in Michigan and Texas.
The conflict comes amid a strong political push to limit religious freedom protections. Millions of dollars in grants have helped fund efforts to argue against religious freedom considered discriminatory on LGBT issues and reproductive rights. CNA has recorded about $8.5 million in foundation grants earmarked for such purposes, including grants to the American Civil Liberties Union.
Catholic adoption and foster agencies in other states have been shut down or defunded because they do not place children with same-sex couples.