Opinion: Religious foster care plays a vital role for our most vulnerable children
The Supreme Court’s decision allowing a faith-based foster care agency to continue operations is the right move
The Supreme Court just decided Fulton v. Philadelphia, a landmark case involving the rights of religious foster care agencies to operate while still observing their religious beliefs. Several prominent social science narratives have sprung up around this case: One is that a allowing religious foster agencies to continue the work they have done for more than 200 years will limit the supply of foster parents, and another is that religious agencies operating on traditional sexual beliefs will harm LGBTQ children. As Muslim, Catholic, Protestant and Latter-day Saint scholars, we want to set the record straight on both of these narratives.
The claim that allowing religious agencies to stay open while staying true to their religious beliefs will reduce the number of foster parents is conjecture at best and a drastic exaggeration at worst. Indeed, none of the justices appear to have bought this argument, as the majority opinion states, “if anything, including (Catholic Social Services) in the program seems likely to increase, not reduce, the number of available foster parents.”
While national-level data exists on children in foster care (albeit with varying quality across states), there is no such dataset on foster parents. Here’s what we do know about foster parents and foster care agencies: Foster care is extremely difficult, but faith helps navigate its challenges. While 30%-50% of foster parents quit after the first year, 82% of foster parents in one study cite faith or church support as something that helps successful fostering.
Families recruited via religious organizations foster for 2.6 years longer than other foster parents. Finally, 36% of families recruited by one Christian organization said that they would not have become foster or adoption parents if it hadn’t been for the efforts of that foster agency.
Faith-based agencies pioneered foster care in the U.S. The first orphanage in the new world was started by Catholic nuns decades before our country’s founding, and the Catholic church in Philadelphia had been finding homes for foster children decades before the city ever got involved.
Even taking into account that some evidence suggests same-sex couples are about six times more likely to foster than mixed-sex couples, same-sex couples are still a small fraction of all foster parents. The latest estimates from the Census Bureau indicate that there are approximately 568,110 same-sex married couples in the United States compared to 57.8 million mixed-sex couples. The argument that the mere presence of a Catholic foster agency will dissuade same-sex parents from fostering, even when those same Catholic agencies provide referral resources to prospective same-sex parents, requires a highly speculative conjecture.
The claim that LGBTQ children are harmed by faith-based agencies is particularly pernicious. These claims are largely based on speculation and prejudiced stereotypes about the treatment of sexual minorities by traditional-minded Christians, Muslims, Jews and people of other faiths. The idea that opposition to same-sex Nikah, or Muslim marriage, for example (which most Muslims worldwide probably hold), will lead to mistreatment of LGBTQ children stems from a prejudiced misunderstanding of the religious ethic that drives religious foster parenting.
Scientifically, there is no research that suggests sexual minority foster youths have worse outcomes when raised in traditional religious homes. (And the faith-based agency in this case served all children regardless of race, religion, sexual orientation or gender identity.) More generally, the literature on the effects of religiosity on LGBTQ health is more complex than many think, with many studies showing positive effects.
This week’s Supreme Court decision says organizations and individuals with traditional religious outlooks on human sexuality still have a place in the foster care system and protects one of the largest swaths of potential foster care parents. The parade of horribles put forward by some people under the guise of social science skews what is really at stake in this case. In a matter as complex as foster care, all should be careful to look at the facts, and the Constitution, when deciding whether faith-based agencies that have helped children in need for centuries should be allowed to continue that work. Fortunately, the Supreme Court did just that.
Byron Johnson is the director of the Institute for Studies of Religion and a distinguished professor of the social sciences.
Stephen Cranney is an adjunct professor at Bowie State University.
Shaykh Mohammed Amin Kholwadia is the founder and director of Darul Qasim, an institute of higher Islamic learning in Glendale Heights, Illinois.
Abdullah bin Hamid Ali is an assistant professor at Zaytuna College in Berkeley, California.
Ahmed Soboh is the former chairman of the Islamic Shura Council of Southern California, religious director of Chino Valley Islamic Center, and religious director of the Islamic Center of Yorba Linda.
Mark Regnerus is a professor of sociology at the University of Texas at Austin and a senior fellow at the Austin Institute for the Study of Faith and Culture.
Father Paul Sullins is a retired professor of sociology at Catholic University of America.
Eric Patterson is the executive vice president of the Religious Freedom Institute and a research fellow at Georgetown University’s Berkley Center for Religion, Peace & World Affairs.
Thomas F. Farr. is the president of the Religious Freedom Institute, former director of the Witherspoon Institute’s International Religious Freedom Task Force and an associate professor of the Practice of Religion and World Affairs at Georgetown University’s Edmund A. Walsh School of Foreign Service.
Catherine R. Pakaluk is an assistant professor of social research and economic thought in the Busch School of Business at Catholic University of America.