Catholic agency offers to cease ‘pastoral references’

Catholic agency offers to cease ‘pastoral references’

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Attorneys for Catholic Social Services recently told a federal judge the agency will stop requiring “pastoral reference letters” from prospective foster parents if a freeze on foster-child referrals to CSS is lifted.

U.S. District Judge Petrese B. Tucker must decide whether to issue a preliminary injunction lifting the freeze on foster-child referrals to CSS that was issued because the agency wouldn’t accept same-sex couples as foster parents.

On June 18, during an injunction hearing, CSS Secretary James Amato testified that the agency  requires “pastoral reference letters” from all prospective foster parents — thus raising concerns among city officials that CSS also discriminates against atheists and agnostics.

In a June 21 letter to Tucker, city attorneys noted the letter requirement as another reason the judge shouldn’t lift the freeze.

But in a June 25 letter to Tucker, CSS attorneys promised to stop requiring the letters if she issues an injunction permitting additional foster-child referrals to CSS. “[The] letters are not necessary for [CSS] to provide foster-care services consistent with its religious mission,” they wrote.

Kenneth A. Gavin, a spokesperson for the Archdiocese of Philadelphia, had no comment last week when asked if CSS would adopt a publicly accessible antibias policy covering atheists, agnostics and LGBT people.

CSS provides foster-care services for 107 children in city custody, but said it will have to end the program within the next several months unless the freeze is lifted. In separate contracts, CSS receives about $8.5 million annually from the city to provide “congregate-care” services for at-risk children who don’t have foster parents.

In a related matter, the city announced on June 28 that it has resumed foster-care referrals to Bethany Christian Services of the Greater Delaware Valley, an agency that reportedly turned away a lesbian couple who wanted to be foster parents.

Bethany, which has been providing foster-case services in Philadelphia for 20 years, recently adopted an antibias policy that satisfies the city’s nondiscrimination requirements, according to a city press release. A spokesperson for Bethany declined to provide a copy of the policy to PGN but cited “a long-standing history of partnering with government and secular organizations to aid children in crisis” in a statement.

“Our faith calls us to work with vulnerable children and families and therefore it is important that Christians remain in this space. To that end, while we will remain compliant with the law, we also remain committed to our Christian beliefs and core values. We hope that all community organizations can work together in partnership to be a part of the solution, offering services to vulnerable children and families.”

On June 29, PGN filed a state Right-to-Know Law request with the city Law Department for a copy of Bethany’s new antibias policy. The RTKL allows citizens to request public records from agencies. PGN’s position is that, as a city subcontractor, Bethany’s antibias policy should be publicly accessible.

As of presstime, the request was under review, a city spokesperson said.

Margaret A. Downey, president of the Freethought Society, said all city funding to CSS and Bethany should be “frozen” until both groups produce written antibias policies covering the LGBT and nontheist communities.

“It’s absolutely unacceptable for any city funds to go to an agency that discriminates against the nontheist community,” Downey told PGN. “The city’s nondiscrimination rules clearly forbid discrimination on the basis of religion, and that includes people without a religion. What do we have to do — declare atheism a religion before the city takes us seriously? It’s ridiculous.”

Downey added: “I would hope the LGBT community would stand with the nontheist community in our quest to ensure that CSS and Bethany have written, publicly accessible antibias policies inclusive of both communities. Nontheists always have stood with the LGBT community on so many of their battles. None of us should be treated as a second-class citizen.”

The controversy involving CSS and Bethany came to the public’s attention in March, after the Philadelphia Inquirer reported that Bethany turned away a lesbian couple who applied to be foster parents. The news coverage prompted an investigation by city officials, resulting in a freeze on foster-care referrals to both Bethany and CSS.

In May, CSS filed suit against the city, claiming officials were infringing on CSS’  free-speech and religious-freedom rights. Tucker is expected to hand down a decision on CSS’ preliminary-injunction request later this month. 

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