PHILADELPHIA — The Third Circuit Court of Appeals has denied an injunction to a faith-based foster agency that, along with three foster parents, had sued the City of Philadelphia for canceling its contract due to a city non-discrimination ordinance that prohibits agencies from turning away homosexuals. Without a contract, the agency will no longer be able to provide foster homes for Philadelphia children who are in government custody.
“CSS’s theme devolves to this: the City is targeting CSS because it discriminates against same-sex couples; CSS is discriminating against same-sex couples because of its religious beliefs; therefore the City is targeting CSS for its religious beliefs. But this syllogism is as flawed as it is dangerous,” wrote Judge Thomas Ambro on behalf of the three-judge panel.
“It runs directly counter to [case law] that, while religious belief is always protected, religiously motivated conduct enjoys no special protections or exemption from general, neutrally applied legal requirements.”
As previously reported, following the release of an article last year by The Philadelphia Inquirer, the Philadelphia Department of Human Services decided to suspend its partnership with Catholic Social Services (CSS) after learning it does not place children in same-sex households.
The matter began with a news lead surrounding Bethany Christian Services, as two lesbians told the outlet that they had been provided with referrals and advised that the organization had never placed children in homes without both a mother and father.
In reporting on the occurrence, The Philadelphia Inquirer decided to also reach out to Catholic Social Services to ask about its practices, and was informed that the entity likewise doesn’t place children with two men or two women. The organization has never been approached by anyone in a same-sex relationship, the representative noted.
Both organizations were consequently placed under investigation and further placements of any kind were halted. Philadelphia City Council also passed a resolution to look into the Department of Human Services’ policy on working with agencies that decline to place children with homosexuals.
While Bethany Christian Services decided to comply with Philadelphia’s non-discrimination ordinance in order to retain its contract, which means that it agreed to work with homosexuals seeking to foster or adopt children, Catholic Social Services sued the City of Philadelphia over the matter.
“Catholic Social Services works with parents like Ms. Paul, who, in her 40-plus years of foster work, has fostered more than 130 children, adopted six children, and received a Foster Parent of the Year award from the City,” the complaint noted.
Cecilia Paul was one of the co-plaintiffs in the case.
“Mrs. Paul wants to foster more children, and she has worked with CSS for the past 46 years. Mrs. Paul also chose to work with Catholic Social Services so that she could raise her foster children consistent with her own religious values,” the legal challenge stated. “By preventing Mrs. Paul from working with Catholic Social Services for her next foster child, Defendants are preventing Mrs. Paul from fostering children at all, infringing her liberty interests to have a family relationship protected by the Constitution.”
In July, U.S. District Judge Petrese Tucker denied Catholic Social Services’ request for an injunction, including among her reasons, “in the context of foster care and adoption, DHS and Philadelphia have a legitimate interest in ensuring that the pool of foster parents and resource caregivers is as diverse and broad as the children in need of foster parents and resource caregivers.”
“Granting an injunction in the face of the foregoing legitimate interests would be in direct conflict with the balance of harms and the public interest,” she wrote.
On Monday, the Third Circuit Court of Appeals agreed with Tucker, stating that even though absent the injunction the agency would no longer be able to work with the City of Philadelphia, “[i]ts congregate care and Community Umbrella Agency functions are unaffected [and] it has other foster care contracts with neighboring counties.”
“The City stands on firm ground in requiring its contractors to abide by its non-discrimination policies when administering public services,” Ambro wrote. “And while CSS may assert that the City’s actions were not driven by a sincere commitment to equality but rather by antireligious and anti-Catholic bias …, the current record does not show religious persecution or bias.”
“Instead, it shows so far the City’s good faith in its effort to enforce its laws against discrimination,” he concluded.
Philadelphia Mayor Jim Kenney cheered the development, remarking in a statement, “I am grateful for the court’s careful analysis of the case and its thoughtful decision. 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.”
However, the law firm Becket, which represented Catholic Social Services in court, lamented, “There are dozens of families licensed to foster through Catholic Social Services who are willing to take in children, but because of the city’s actions, their beds have remained empty for close to a year.”
Sharonelle Fulton, one of the foster parents who was a co-plaintiff in the case, said in an op-ed last year that she rather felt discriminated against by the City’s actions.
“As a single mom and woman of color, I’ve known a thing or two about discrimination over the years,” she wrote. “But I have never known vindictive religious discrimination like this, and I feel the fresh sting of bias watching my faith publicly derided by Philadelphia’s politicians.”
“I have devoted my life to opening my home as a safe harbor to children like him who have endured unspeakable abuse and trauma. For the last 25 years, I have sheltered and loved more than 40 children, helping them piece their lives together and move on from hurt-filled pasts,” Fulton stated. “Now, it is my turn to feel the pain of rejection.”