Discrimination in Social Services

Allowing Taxpayer-Funded Religious Discrimination In Foster Care Harms Children In Need

  Rob Boston

When the U.S. Supreme Court hands down decisions, it doesn’t just pontificate on abstract legal principles. Its decisions affect real people with real problems and real concerns. The court’s decisions can alleviate those concerns or make them worse.

A case pending before the high court from Philadelphia illustrates this point. In Fulton v. City of Philadelphia, the court will decide whether a religious foster care agency in Pennsylvania that contracted to perform government services on behalf of the city and received taxpayer funding to do so can turn couples away because they are LGBTQ, the “wrong” religion or they’ve fallen afoul of some other religious standard.

The ruling could affect people like John Currie, a high school student in Philadelphia, who recently shared his heart-wrenching story in an opinion column in the Forward. At age 8, John’s ill mother was unable to care for him. He ended up in a residential facility. Six months later, he was placed with a Jewish couple who later adopted him.

That happy ending almost didn’t happen. As John tells the story, his adopted mother had been looking to foster an older child but was turned away from an evangelical Christian agency in South Carolina, where she lived at the time. She later found John through another foster care provider, but South Carolina no longer contracts with that agency.

In parts of that state, if you want to foster a child, you will likely end up being referred to Miracle Hill Ministries – an organization that, though it receives funding from the state, will only work with evangelical Protestants or people who are Catholic or Orthodox if they willing to endorse its faith statement. This excludes many people, such as Jews, Muslims, Mormons and Unitarian Universalists, to name a few, who are eager to offer a loving home to a child in need.

As John put it, “It’s not right for a taxpayer-funded agency to deny children in foster care access to loving families that could care for them because those families don’t meet a religious test.”

Americans United is currently representing a South Carolina mom, Aimee Maddonna, who was turned away from Miracle Hill because of her Catholic faith. In a 2019 blog post, Aimee spoke of the pain and frustration of being denied the opportunity to help children in need – and from a taxpayer-supported agency.

If the Supreme Court rules that cities and states don’t have the power to deny public support to discriminatory agencies like Miracle Hill, it won’t just set religious freedom back; it will make it more difficult for children stuck in foster care to find forever homes.

As John Currie eloquently observed: “After my mom found out that her faith disqualified her from getting licensed to foster-adopt, she might have felt disheartened and given up. But because of her extraordinary tenacity, she and my dad found me, and they brought me home. Children in foster care can’t afford for such obstacles to be placed in the paths of families who are willing and able to love and support them.”

No child should be placed in the position of missing out on that kind of love and care because of an extreme, inaccurate definition of religious freedom.

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