Catholic agency seeks injunction in LGBT foster-care dispute

Catholic agency seeks injunction in LGBT foster-care dispute

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Attorneys for Catholic Social Services urged a federal judge this week to issue a preliminary injunction that would halt the city’s freeze on foster-child referrals to CSS that went into effect March 15, because CSS won’t accept same-sex couples as foster parents.

On June 18 and 19, U.S. District Judge Petrese B. Tucker heard a total of eight hours of testimony about the dispute. CSS attorneys insist “needy children and foster parents across Philadelphia” would suffer “irreparable harm” if Tucker doesn’t issue an injunction. More testimony was scheduled for June 21.

The city has about 6,000 foster-care children in its custody and contracts with 30 agencies to provide foster services. CSS provides services for 107 children.

In May, CSS filed suit against the city, alleging state and federal violations of CSS’ free-speech and religious-freedom rights. On June 7, CSS requested a preliminary injunction to halt the city’s referral freeze. CSS is represented by Becket, a D.C.-based law firm specializing in religious-freedom cases.

On June 19, during a preliminary-injunction hearing, CSS Secretary James Amato testified that the agency would will end its foster-care program within the next several months if the city’s referral freeze isn’t lifted. He said about a dozen CSS workers will lose their jobs. He emphasized that CSS cannot accept same-sex couples as foster parents because of CSS’ religious beliefs regarding marriage. He also said city officials expressed disagreement with those beliefs when they discussed the foster-care dispute with him.

For the period of July 1, 2017, to April 30, 2018, the city paid CSS $1.68 million for providing foster-care services, according to city records. But Amato said CSS subsidized the program to the tune of $3.8 million, using its own funds.

In separate contracts, CSS receives about $18.5 million annually from the city to provide congregate-living services for at-risk children who don’t have foster parents, Amato said.

He also testified that CSS won’t accept unmarried opposite-sex couples as foster parents. Moreover, all CSS foster parents must have a “pastoral reference letter” before children are placed with them. But Amato said a Protestant minister or a Jewish rabbi may provide the letter — not solely a Catholic priest.

It remains unclear whether CSS would accept atheists and agnostics as foster-care parents. Outside the courtroom, Amato declined to answer questions from a PGN reporter.

Sharonell Fulton, Cecelia Paul and Toni Simms-Busch are CSS foster parents and plaintiffs in CSS’ suit against the city. On June 18, they testified they’d be reluctant to transition to a different agency if CSS’ contract with the city ends.

“I don’t know what I would do,” Busch said. “What choice do I have?” Fulton said she would be “devastated” if her relationship with CSS ends. Paul emphasized that CSS is like a “family” to her and that she’s unfamiliar with other foster-care agencies.

On June 18, Kimberly Ali, deputy commissioner of the city’s Department of Human Services, testified that if the city’s foster-care contract with CSS ends, every effort would be made to ensure a smooth transition for the 107 children currently served by CSS.

“We want to minimize and avoid disruptions,” Ali said.

She also testified that a prospective foster parent should be trained and certified by a foster-care agency of their choice. She emphatically rejected suggestions by CSS attorney Stephanie H. Barclay that it’s appropriate for a foster-care agency to refer a prospective foster parent to another agency, where they’ll find a “better fit.”

When Barclay suggested in a question to Ali that the city’s Office of LGBT Affairs limits its services solely to LGBT individuals, Ali replied that she didn’t know that to be true.

Amber Hikes, executive director of the city’s Office of LGBT Affairs, issued this statement on June 19: “While the mission of the Office of LGBT Affairs is to foster equal working and living conditions for lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and queer (LGBTQ) people and to advocate for LGBTQ issues in all areas of City government, we are committed to supporting all Philadelphians regardless of sexual orientation or gender identity. We work closely with the Philadelphia Commission on Human Relations to provide assistance and information to Philadelphia residents who believe they’ve experienced discrimination.”

Another CSS attorney, Lori H. Windham, blasted Mayor Jim Kenney for allegedly denigrating the religious beliefs of Catholics. She pointed to a 2014 tweet by Kenney, who was not mayor at the time, that stated: “The Arch [Archbishop Chaput] don’t care about people. It’s about image and money. Pope Francis needs to kick some ass here!”

City attorney Eleanor N. Ewing told the judge that city officials respect CSS’ religious beliefs and the work it performs on behalf of at-risk youths. But she said all city subcontractors must abide by the city’s antibias rules.

“No exceptions are being given [to the other 29 foster-care agencies] to allow discrimination,” Ewing said. “Giving an exception to discriminate isn’t in the best interests of a child.”

There’s no crisis in the city’s foster-care system, Ewing added.  “The children are OK,” she told the judge. “There are no children who aren’t being placed appropriately.”

In a related matter, city officials announced this week that a similar dispute with Bethany Christian Services appears to be resolved amicably, and that Bethany is expected to continue providing foster-care services for about 100 children in city custody in a nondiscriminatory manner.

A spokesperson for Bethany had no comment for this story. 

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