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In battle over faith-based adoption agencies and LGBTQ rights, advocates clash over what’s best for kids

The Supreme Court will hear a case involving a Catholic adoption agency in Philadelphia

SHARE In battle over faith-based adoption agencies and LGBTQ rights, advocates clash over what’s best for kids
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Sharonell Fulton, along with one other foster mom and Catholic Social Services, sued the city of Philadelphia after officials began refusing to contract with faith-based foster care agencies that won’t serve LGBTQ couples.

Provided by the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty

SALT LAKE CITY — State officials across the country have struggled for years to balance the rights of LGBTQ couples and the faith-based foster care agencies that, for religious reasons, won’t evaluate their eligibility to adopt. Now, the Supreme Court will take up the challenge.

Justices announced Monday that they will hear Sharonell Fulton, et al. v. City of Philadelphia, a case pitting Catholic Social Services and two foster moms against city officials who say religious freedom protections don’t overrule nondiscrimination rules.

LGBTQ rights advocates argue that a ruling in favor of faith-based adoption agencies would reduce the pool of prospective foster parents and harm children in need of new homes. The possibility of being treated differently than straight couples could deter same-sex couples from getting involved in the child welfare system, said Leslie Cooper, deputy director of the ACLU LGBT & HIV Project, in a statement.

“We already have a severe shortage of foster families willing and able to open their hearts and homes to these children. Allowing foster care agencies to exclude qualified families based on religious requirements that have nothing to do with the ability to care for a child such as their sexual orientation or faith would make it even worse,” she said.

However, when faith-based foster care agencies are forced to comply with LGBTQ nondiscrimination requirements, some choose to close rather than violate their religious beliefs. The child welfare system functions best when many different types of agencies are able to recruit and train foster families, said Lori Windham, senior counsel at The Becket Fund for Religious Liberty, in a statement.

“Over the last few years, agencies have been closing their doors across the country, and all the while children are pouring into the system. We are confident that the court will realize that the best solution is the one that has worked in Philadelphia for a century — all hands on deck for foster kids,” she said.

Fulton v. City of Philadelphia originated in 2018, when Philadelphia leaders announced they’d no longer contract with faith-based agencies that wouldn’t evaluate the eligibility of same-sex couples. Catholic Social Services and a group of families who support its work filed a lawsuit soon after, arguing that banning conservative, religious organizations from taking part in a public program constitutes unlawful religious discrimination.

“The mayor, City Council, Department of Human Services and other city officials have targeted (Catholic Social Services) and attempted to coerce it into changing its religious practices,” they said in their petition to the Supreme Court. The agency “cannot make foster certifications inconsistent with its religious beliefs about sex and marriage.”

Catholic Social Services and the families, who are represented by Becket, also believe Philadelphia officials are responding to a problem that doesn’t exist.

“Philadelphia has a diverse array of foster agencies, and not a single same-sex couple approached (Catholic Social Services) about becoming a foster parent between its opening in 1917 and the start of this case in 2018,” they said in their Supreme Court petition.

Philadelphia officials argue that their focus is on doing what’s right for vulnerable children and prospective parents. City policy prohibits organizations that discriminate on the basis of sexual orientation from receiving taxpayer funds, they said.

“Excluding qualified parents based solely on their sexual orientation ... would do a disservice to children in the foster system (and) unnecessarily limit the pool of available parents,” attorneys for Philadelphia officials argued in their Supreme Court brief.

Lower courts ruled in favor of city leaders, so Catholic Social Services appealed to the Supreme Court. Justices will decide whether excluding religiously affiliated organizations from a government-sponsored foster care system violates the First Amendment’s religious freedom protections.

Similar legal and legislative battles are playing out across the country, as policymakers try to determine whether it’s possible to protect faith-based agencies and LGBTQ couples at the same time. The Trump administration recently announced plans to change federal regulations in order to ensure conservative, religious organizations can continue taking part in government funding programs.

Many child welfare advocates regret that tension over the rights of faith-based agencies and LGBTQ couples has become a culture war issue. For years, agencies with different beliefs about same-sex marriage have been working together to connect eligible foster families to the organizations that will best serve their needs, said Herbie Newell, the president and executive director of Lifeline Children’s Services, in an interview with the Deseret News this fall.

But Newell doesn’t fault Catholic Social Services for turning to the Supreme Court for help. Faith-based agencies are an essential piece of the child welfare system and everyone benefits when they’re able to operate according to their beliefs, he said.

“They’ve had great success with recruiting families who share their beliefs and world view,” he said. Many religious families won’t participate in the child welfare system unless they can work with an agency who shares their beliefs.

However, the same policies that are meaningful to religious families can be harmful to same-sex couples. Many LGBTQ families already choose not to participate in the child welfare out of fear that they’ll face discrimination, Cooper said during a Monday press call.

If the Supreme Court rules in favor of Catholic Social Services, that fear will grow, she added, arguing that “we can’t afford such a deterrent.”

Such a ruling could also harm members of minority faith groups, who are sometimes turned away by faith-based agencies for having different beliefs, Cooper said.

“Allowing the use of religious eligibility criteria doesn’t advance religious liberty. It does the opposite,” she said.

Katy Joseph, policy and legislation adviser for Interfaith Alliance, shared similar concerns in a statement released Monday.

“The constitutional right to religious freedom protects the sanctity of personal belief. However, that freedom ends when the exercise of one’s faith would harm the rights or well-being of another,” she said.

Other people of faith celebrated the Supreme Court’s decision to hear the case and called for a ruling in favor of Catholic Social Services.

“I hope to see the opportunities for people of faith moving toward becoming foster and adoptive families to be upheld. And if they want to walk by their faith, that they can continue to do so with organizations that are like-minded,” said Sharen Ford, the director of foster care and adoption for Focus on the Family, in a statement.

The Supreme Court will hear oral arguments in Fulton v. City of Philadelphia sometime next fall.