Catholic agency asks Supreme Court to hear foster-care dispute

Catholic agency asks Supreme Court to hear foster-care dispute

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Last week, Catholic Social Services of Philadelphia took its legal battle with the city over foster-care services to the U.S. Supreme Court.

In March 2018, city officials stopped referring foster-care children to CSS after published reports disclosed the agency wouldn’t place children with same-sex couples. City officials said CSS’ policies violate the city’s Fair Practices Ordinance, which bans LGBT bias in public accommodations. Two months later, CSS filed suit against the city, claiming violations of its constitutional rights to freedom of speech and religion.

CSS asked U.S. District Judge Petrese B. Tucker to issue a preliminary injunction ordering the city to renew its contract despite CSS’ unwillingness to comply with the city’s nondiscrimination requirement. Tucker denied that request in July 2018 and in April 2019 the Third Circuit Court of Appeals agreed with Tucker.

On July 22, in a 56-page appeal, CSS asked the U.S. Supreme Court to review the matter. PGN reported this was expected on June 27, when a conference call was held with ACLU and child-welfare advocates to discuss the impact of the projected appeal on the  LGBTQ community.

CSS’ appeal emphasizes the agency’s right to religious freedom. “CSS exercises its religion by caring for foster children and acting in accordance with its Catholic beliefs in the process. This means that CSS cannot make foster [placements] inconsistent with its religious beliefs about sex and marriage,” the appeal states.

The appeal notes that its foster-care program has existed for more than a century and shouldn’t end simply due to dispute with the city about same-sex marriage. “CSS is asking that it not be compelled to affirm same-sex marriages as the price of continuing a religious ministry,” the appeal asserts.

The appeal also states CSS’ foster-care program has dwindled dramatically. “Of an original staff of seven workers devoted full time to foster care, CSS has retained just three foster care employees who now split time with another program. This has allowed CSS to keep its program open, but it is only a temporary solution.”

Alabama, Kansas, Michigan, Mississippi, North Dakota, Oklahoma, South Carolina, South Dakota, Texas and Virginia allow child-placement agencies to turn away LGBT clientele, the appeal notes.

The nonprofit Becket Fund for Religious Liberty, based in Washington, D.C., is handling the appeal for CSS. The city has until August 26 to file a reply brief.

City Solicitor Marcel Pratt issued the following statement: “The City is not surprised that CSS has chosen to ask the U.S. Supreme Court for review, despite the Third Circuit’s well-reasoned decision that upheld the City’s position after a thorough review of its origins and justifications. The City of Philadelphia respects and protects all of our residents’ religious freedom, a value that we hold dear. But that freedom doesn’t give any of us a constitutional right to discriminate. The City is proud of our longstanding commitment to supporting freedom of religion and preserving equal access to services for all people, regardless of their race, national origin, religion, age, sex, disability, sexual orientation, and gender identity. The City is also proud of its continuing relationship with CSS and its partnership with many other agencies, secular and religious, in serving all City residents.

“As the Third Circuit made clear, those who decide to contract with the City to carry out a program supported by City taxpayer funds cannot rewrite their contracts as they see fit. In refusing to consider qualified same-sex couples to become foster parents – even when these couples would offer loving homes to the children – CSS chose not to comply with City non-discrimination policy, as reflected in its original contract and reaffirmed in the most recent City contract offered to all foster care providers. We want all individuals who are able to provide safe and welcoming homes to consider fostering. The best way to serve the youth in our care is by upholding our sincere commitment to the dignity of all people, including our LGBTQ community.”

Molly Tack-Hooper, senior staff attorney at the ACLU of Pennsylvania said, “Taxpayer-funded child-welfare agencies should not be able to discriminate against qualified foster and adoptive families due to a religious litmus test. Catholic Social Services wants to force every state and local government to allow exactly that.

“With more than 400,000 children in the foster care system across the country — a quarter of whom are waiting for a family to adopt them — no family willing and able to open their hearts and home to a child should be rejected. When agencies choose to accept taxpayer dollars to provide this critically important government service to children, the needs of children must come first.”

According to court testimony, CSS received about $1.7 million annually from the city for foster-care services prior to referrals being halted. The city contracts with 29 other agencies to provide foster-care services for about 5,700 children and provides about $26 million annually to CSS for services apart from foster-care services.

Pennsylvania state law requires foster agencies to consider a variety of factors before approving a foster parent, including whether the person has the ability to nurture and supervise a child, whether the person’s home is safe and appropriate and whether the person has supportive ties within the community. Pennsylvania doesn’t require an inquiry regarding the sexual orientation of a prospective foster parent. n

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