400-plus faith leaders say gov't-funded Christian foster care orgs must place kids with gay couples

Unsplash/Irina Murza
Unsplash/Irina Murza

An interfaith coalition of more than 400 faith leaders signed a legal brief for a U.S. Supreme Court case arguing that Christian foster care agencies contracted with the government must place children in same-sex households.

The amicus brief was filed last week in the Supreme Court case of Sharonell Fulton et al. v. City of Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, et al., supporting the decision of Philadelphia officials to end their contract with Catholic Social Services over its religious objections to placing children with same-sex couples.

The brief takes issue with what the faith leaders call “a false dichotomy between LGBT equality and the free exercise of religion” and rejects “an unfounded constitutional right to discriminate against same-sex couples when providing public child welfare services under a taxpayer-funded government contract.”

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“Personal religious views are entitled to the utmost respect but do not provide a license to write those views into government contracts to provide public services and thus dictate how those services are provided,” stated the brief in part.

“Within the diverse panorama of American religious thought, a large and growing portion of the religious community welcomes, accepts, and celebrates LGBT individuals and their families and rejects the notion that they should be subject to discrimination based on differing religious views.”

The petitioners also rejected the argument that antidiscrimination standards “would force [Catholic Social Services] and other religious foster care agencies to violate their religious beliefs about marriage and give up their ministry.”

“Existing constitutional principles protect the autonomy of religious entities and individuals to teach and shape their religious beliefs concerning sexuality, marriage, and family life and to preserve religious practices that comport with their respective tenets,” continued the brief.

“Philadelphia is enforcing nondiscrimination as a secular policy, regardless of the agency’s religious affiliation or beliefs (or lack thereof) and regardless of whether or not the discrimination is motivated by religion.”

In addition to individual clergy, progressive faith groups that have signed onto the brief include the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism, Central Atlantic Conference of the United Church of Christ, the Union for Reform Judaism, the Unitarian Universalist Association, Covenant Network of Presbyterians, the Methodist Federation for Social Action, Muslims for Progressive Values, and Reconciling Ministries Network, among others.

The Rev. Gay Clark Jennings, president of the House of Deputies of The Episcopal Church, was the lead petitioner for the interfaith groups’ amicus brief.

“As Episcopalians, we believe in the equality of LGBTQ families because of our faith, not in spite of it,” said Jennings in a statement released Monday.

“It is a false choice to suggest that we must choose either religious freedom or solidarity with our LGBTQ siblings in Christ.”

In 2018, Philadelphia officials decided to stop the placement of children in homes of foster parents affiliated with Catholic Social Services and Bethany Christian Services of Greater Delaware Valley.

At issue was that both Christian foster care agencies refused on religious grounds to place children in the homes of same-sex couples, which the city considered discriminatory.

While Bethany changed its policy, foster parents and others who worked with Catholic Social Services sued the city, claiming their decision violated the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution.

Plaintiff Fulton fostered around 40 children during her 25 years of working with Catholic Social Services, and plaintiff Toni Simms-Busch was a former social worker who adopted her foster children through Catholic Social Services.

Becket, a law firm that has successfully argued religious liberty cases before the Supreme Court, is helping to represent the plaintiffs.

“In Philadelphia, there are dozens of private agencies that partner with LGBTQ foster parents. And same-sex couples have been fostering kids in Philadelphia for years with their help. Nothing about this case would change that,” Becket said.

“Catholic Social Services wants to continue serving vulnerable kids and foster families without compromising its beliefs (as it has done successfully for the last 100 years) alongside a diverse network of other agencies also serving the Philadelphia community. Catholic Social Services has loving families ready to care for kids today, but the government is keeping them on the sidelines.”

In April 2019, a three-judge panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit unanimously ruled in favor of the city, reaffirming a lower court's decision.

“[The First Amendment] does not prohibit government regulation of religiously motivated conduct so long as that regulation is not a veiled attempt to suppress disfavored religious beliefs,” ruled the Third Circuit panel.

“CSS may assert that the city’s actions were not driven by a sincere commitment to equality but rather by anti-religious and anti-Catholic bias (and is of course able to introduce additional evidence as this case proceeds), the current record does not show religious persecution or bias.”

In February, the Supreme Court agreed to hear oral arguments in the case during its next session, with a decision expected by the high court next June.

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