Apr 23, 2019

A federal appeals court yesterday upheld LGBTQ equality in foster care.

The 3rd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that the city of Philadelphia is not constitutionally required to continue to contract with a foster care agency that refuses to certify same-sex couples as foster parents.

The religiously affiliated agency, Catholic Social Services, filed the lawsuit, Fulton v. City of Philadelphia, against Philadelphia when city officials terminated the agency’s contract to provide foster care because it would not follow the city’s anti-discrimination rules. The court held that religion is not a license to discriminate, rejecting Catholic Social Services’ request to force Philadelphia to continue to place foster children in the agency’s care while the lawsuit moves forward.

This is a huge win. As Americans United explained in our friend-of-the-court brief in the case, government must not fund a private entity’s religiously motivated discrimination. Nor may government grant special religious exceptions from a law when it would cause harm to others – in this case, both the same-sex couples who want to become foster parents and the children in need of homes.

Decisions like this one have far-reaching implications. In several cases, people and entities have tried to argue that foster care agencies have a religious-freedom right to discriminate against LGBTQ foster parents. In Michigan, for example, the Religious Right group Becket Fund represents foster parents who are suing to allow foster agencies to discriminate. And in South Carolina, Americans United has filed a lawsuit, Maddonna v. U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, against the federal and state governments on behalf of a Catholic family that was rejected by an evangelical Christian foster agency for being the “wrong religion.”

The arguments made in favor of religiously motivated discrimination in foster care also have been made in other contexts. We’ve pushed back against the same contentions in cases like Masterpiece Cakeshop v. Colorado Civil Rights Commission, where business owners argue that their religious beliefs allow them to refuse to serve LGBTQ people. These arguments, if allowed to succeed, would excuse discrimination – including discrimination based on religion, sex, gender, race, marital status and more in nearly any context.

The 3rd Circuit rejected this line of thinking in Fulton, explaining that “religious belief will not excuse compliance with general civil rights laws” – a rule that the Supreme Court had acknowledged in Masterpiece Cakeshop. The appeals court also rejected the foster care agency’s assertions, which were similar to those we’ve seen in other recent cases, that the equal enforcement of civil rights laws is somehow a form of anti-religious hostility.

Barring a request for Supreme Court review, the Fulton case will be sent back to the federal trial court for the parties to gather and present additional evidence. And in the meantime, Americans United will keep fighting so that all people regardless of religion, race, sexual orientation, sex, gender identity, or other characteristics enjoy equal rights and are not discriminated against based on the religious beliefs of a foster-care agency, business, or health care provider that wants to deny them their dignity.