On Monday, February 24, the US Supreme Court agreed to hear Fulton v. City of Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. The case arises from the city’s requirement that its foster care licensing agencies not discriminate against same sex couples. Catholic Social Services sued the city, arguing that the nondiscrimination policy restricted its right to freedom of religion. (Read more)
NACAC strongly supports the right of the city of Philadelphia—and other jurisdictions—to require its private agencies under contract to offer foster care and adoption services without discrimination. Below is our statement on the case.
It is well-established child welfare practice that prospective foster and adoptive parents should be assessed based on one thing only—their ability to provide a safe, loving home for a child—and that foster and adoptive family placements should be made based on the best interests of the child. The Fulton case could upend these long-standing child welfare principles.
In this case, a foster care agency claims a constitutional right to use religious eligibility criteria when screening prospective families for children in the public child welfare system. Should the Court agree with this claim, qualified families across the country will be turned away for reasons that have nothing to do with their ability to care for a child, worsening the already severe shortage of foster and adoptive parents needed to care for the more than 430,000 children in foster care. The best interests of children will no longer be the paramount consideration; children’s needs will have to yield to the interests of the agencies hired by the government to care for them.
We have a moral obligation to ensure that every child has the love and support of a family. Allowing discrimination against prospective foster and adoptive parents denies children families they desperately need.
Catholic Social Services’ claim does not only risk the loss of families headed by same-sex couples. There are some agencies that turn away families because of religious objections to accepting those who practice a different faith than the agencies’ leaders, don’t attend church, or are unmarried. If the Supreme Court were to rule that government-funded agencies have a constitutional right to exclude families that fail their religious test, all state and local governments would be forced to permit such discrimination in their foster care system, losing countless qualified families.
The nation’s leading child welfare organizations have all weighed in in support of the City of Philadelphia because discrimination against prospective foster and adoptive families makes it even harder to find families for our most vulnerable children.
Some suggest there is no harm in allowing agencies to exclude families based on religious criteria because, they say, there are other agencies these families can go to. But that’s not the case everywhere, and even where there are other agencies, being subjected to the sting of discrimination or the challenge of navigating a system that permits discrimination against you deters families from coming forward. I’ve seen first-hand good, loving families that were lost to discrimination.
A wrong decision in this case could also open the door to discrimination against children and teens in care. Agencies could refuse to serve Jewish children or gay kids and certainly wouldn’t have to respect their identities.
To those who argue that requiring agencies to accept all qualified families will mean the end of faith-based agencies’ important contribution to the child welfare field and a shortage of agencies to care for children, this is simply untrue. There are many faith-based agencies that follow child welfare standards and accept all qualified families, regardless of agency leaders’ religious beliefs. And when agencies have chosen to end government child welfare work because they felt accepting certain families would conflict with their faith, other agencies—including faith-based agencies—stepped up to serve children.
There is no shortage of agencies; there is a shortage of families. Allowing agencies to exclude families based on religious criteria does nothing but make it worse.