June 2019 Church & State Magazine - June 2019

Philadelphia Officials May Require Non-Discrimination In Foster Care, Court Says

  Rob Boston

A federal appeals court ruled April 22 that officials in Philadelphia are not required to continue to contract with a foster care agency that refuses to certify same-sex couples as foster parents.

The 3rd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled against Catholic Social Services, a religiously affiliated agen­­cy that filed the lawsuit against Philadelphia officials after the city terminated the agency’s contract to provide foster care because it would not follow the city’s anti-discrimination rules. Specifically, the Catholic agency refused to place children with LGBTQ families.

The court, ruling on a request for a preliminary injunction, rejected Catholic Social Services’ demand to force Philadelphia to continue to place foster children in the agency’s care while the lawsuit moves forward.

Americans United filed a legal brief in the case, arguing that government must not fund a private entity’s religiously motivated discrimination. The AU legal document also asserted that government may not 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,” wrote Claire L. Hillan, an AU legal fellow, on AU’s “Wall of Separation” blog. “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 appeals court rejected discrimination, asserting that “religious belief will not excuse compliance with general civil rights laws.”

“The City stands on firm ground in requiring its contractors to abide by its non-discrimination policies when administering public services,” wrote Judge Thomas Ambro. (Fulton v. City of Philadelphia)

In other news about religion-based discrimination in foster care programs:

  • The Arkansas legislature adjourned in late April without passing SB 352, a bill that would have allowed taxpayer-funded adoption agencies to discriminate against foster parents because they’re the “wrong” religion or members of the LGBTQ community. The bill, introduced by state Sen. Alan Clark (R-13th Dist.) would have explicitly allowed the state to contract with child-placement agencies that refuse to participate “in a child placement that violates the sincerely held religious beliefs of the child welfare agency.”
  • Consideration of SB 1304, a bill in Tennessee that would have allowed foster care and adoption agencies to refuse to work with anyone if it violated the agen­cy’s “written religious or moral convictions or policies” yet still receive taxpayer aid, has been delayed until next year.
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