Supreme Court Gives Hope to Adoption Agency Targeted for Its Religious Beliefs

On Monday, the Supreme Court announced it would take up a case involving a Roman Catholic adoption agency denied taxpayer funding and placement opportunities because of its religious beliefs on marriage and sexuality. In Philadelphia v. Fulton, the City of Philadelphia cut ties with the Catholic Social Services (CSS) foster care system over the organization's refusal to place children in foster care with same-sex or unmarried couples. While the Third Circuit Court of Appeals ruled in favor of the city, the agency claims this violated its First Amendment rights to free exercise of religion and free speech.

LGBT activists and state and local governments have targeted religious foster care and adoption agencies, claiming that they discriminate against same-sex couples and should therefore be excluded from the adoption process or lose any taxpayer funding for their work. They would force these agencies out of the market, leaving fewer options for needy children.

"I’m relieved to hear that the Supreme Court will weigh in on faith-based adoption and foster care," Lori Windham, senior counsel at Becket, the religious freedom law firm representing Catholic Social Services, said 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."

In March 2018, the City of Philadelphia stopped allowing foster children to be placed with families who work with CSS, claiming that the Catholic agency either had to endorse and certify same-sex relationships or shut down. The city targeted the church regardless of the fact that not a single same-sex couple had sought foster care certification from CSS over its 100 years of service in the city. Same-sex couples easily go elsewhere. Indeed, no couple has ever been prevented from fostering or adopting a child in need because of CSS's religious beliefs, according to Becket.

Court records show the Catholic organization placed more than 250 children into foster care in 2017. Nearly two dozen private agencies receive taxpayer funds from the City of Philadelphia to do this important work.

Becket represents two Philadelphia foster moms who defended the faith-based agency that brought their families together.

"CSS has been a godsend to my family and so many like ours. I don’t think I could have gone through this process without an agency that shares my core beliefs and cares for my children accordingly," Toni Simms-Busch, a former social worker who recently adopted the children she fostered through Catholic Social Services, said in a statement. "We are so grateful that the Supreme Court has agreed to hear our case and sort out the mess that Philadelphia has created for so many vulnerable foster children."

The other woman represented in the case, Sharonell Fulton, has fostered more than 40 children over 25 years with Catholic Social Services.

Across the country, five major cities and one state have already shut faith-based agencies out of the foster care system, even though there is a shortage of families and a surplus of at-risk children due in part to the opioid epidemic. According to Becket, religious agencies like CSS are particularly successful at placing high-risk children in loving families.

"There’s no reason to single out and punish adoption providers who are motivated by their sincerely held religious beliefs that the best home for a child includes a mother and father," Keisha Russell, counsel at First Liberty Institute, explained. "When the government decides whose faith is or is not acceptable, we all lose."

"When the city of Philadelphia excluded a Catholic agency from its foster care program, it was not only violating the agency’s constitutionally protected right to free exercise of religion, but also dealing a blow to the thousands of vulnerable children in Philadelphia who desperately need safe homes," Dr. Grazie Pozo Christie, policy advisor for The Catholic Association, said in a statement. "We fully expect that the Supreme Court will protect the rights of Americans who are motivated by their faith to help children, as government should let good people do good things, and not make violating their beliefs the price of doing indispensable work."

Yet the American Civil Liberties Union frames the case as a battle over "whether taxpayer-funded agencies can use religion as a license to discriminate." The ACLU accused CSS of seeking "a 'constitutional right' to turn away same-sex couples who want to be foster parents in Philadelphia."

While LGBT activists loudly condemn any charity that would abide by traditional Christian doctrines on sexuality, a 2018 study showed that President Donald Trump's religious freedom order helped 13.7 million people receive health care and social services.

Religious adoption agencies perform an important service for needy children, and LGBT activists are wrong to try to prevent them from helping the needy.

Tyler O'Neil is the author of Making Hate Pay: The Corruption of the Southern Poverty Law Center. Follow him on Twitter at @Tyler2ONeil.