Constitutional Law

Catholic foster care agency loses fight over refusing to place kids with same-sex couples

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A federal appeals court ruled Monday that the city of Philadelphia can sever its contract with a Catholic foster care agency that refuses to place children with same-sex couples.

In its opinion, a three-judge panel of the 3rd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals at Philadelphia held that Catholic Social Services’ religious beliefs do not entitle it to an exception from the city’s nondiscrimination policy. The Philadelphia Inquirer, NPR and Courthouse News Service have coverage.

“The city stands on firm ground in requiring its contractors to abide by its nondiscrimination policies when administering public services,” Judge Thomas Ambro wrote in the opinion.

“While 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 … the current record does not show religious persecution or bias,” Ambro said. “Instead it shows so far the city’s good faith in its effort to enforce its laws against discrimination.”

Sharonell Fulton and other foster parents licensed through Catholic Social Services brought the lawsuit against the city of Philadelphia in May 2018.

District Judge Petrese Tucker of the Eastern District of Pennsylvania ruled in favor of the city, finding that Catholic Social Services had violated the nondiscrimination clause of its contract by discriminating against members of the LGBTQ community.

In a statement, Philadelphia Mayor Jim Kenney said he was grateful for the appeals court’s “thoughtful decision” in the case.

“Our policy ensures that same-sex couples do not face discrimination as they seek to offer loving homes to Philadelphia children in need of foster care,” Kenney said. “At the same time, the policy safeguards religious liberties. We are proud that Philadelphia is a welcoming, inclusive city that values the diversity of its residents. This policy is the embodiment of those values, and we are pleased that the court has now upheld it.”

Lori Windham, senior counsel at religious liberty law firm Becket who represents Fulton and the other foster parents, said in a statement Monday that her clients will appeal the case to the U.S. Supreme Court.

“This ruling is devastating to the hundreds of foster children who have been waiting for a family and to the dozens of parents working with Catholic Social Services who have been waiting to foster a child,” Windham said. “We’re disappointed that the court decided to let the city place politics above the needs of kids and the rights of parents, but we will continue this fight.”

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