PHILADELPHIA — A federal district court today ruled that the city of Philadelphia can require foster care agencies with city contracts to abide by its nondiscrimination policies. This ruling is the first time a federal court has said that government-contracted child welfare agencies do not have a right to exclude same-sex couples or others who don’t meet an agency’s religious test from fostering children.
Catholic Social Services (CSS) asked the court to issue a preliminary injunction ordering Philadelphia to resume referrals of cases to CSS despite its unwillingness to comply with city nondiscrimination requirements that apply to potential same-sex foster parents. The court denied CSS’s request, rejecting its argument that the Constitution requires the city to permit government-contracted agencies performing public child welfare services to turn away prospective foster and adoptive families based on religious objections to same-sex couples.
“First and foremost, this is a victory for children in Philadelphia who need a loving home and can’t afford to have good families turned away for failing to meet a religious litmus test,” said Reggie Shuford, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Pennsylvania. “We’re proud that the city is committed to ensuring that no qualified family that comes forward to care for a child in need is turned away because of their sexual orientation or other reasons unrelated to the ability to care for a child. And we’re thrilled that the court rejected the claimed constitutional right to discriminate against loving families.”
In June, the American Civil Liberties Union, the ACLU of Pennsylvania, and volunteer counsel from Dechert LLP asked the court for permission to intervene in the lawsuit on behalf of the Support Center for Child Advocates, a nonprofit organization that provides legal representation and services to children in the foster care system, and Philadelphia Family Pride (PFP), a membership organization of LGBTQ parents and prospective parents. Although that motion has not been decided yet, the court allowed the prospective intervenors to submit a brief in support of the city’s position and to present argument in court.
According to the ACLU, this may have repercussions for states that have passed laws permitting agencies to use such religious tests.
“When faith-based agencies choose to receive taxpayer dollars to provide public child welfare services, their religious beliefs cannot trump the best interests of the children in their care,” said Leslie Cooper, deputy director of the ACLU’s LGBT and HIV Project. “The court saw it was not only permissible for the city of Philadelphia to prohibit discrimination by its contract agencies, but that allowing the use of religious screening requirements in the public child welfare system would likely violate the Constitution.”
The Support Center for Child Advocates and Philadelphia Family Pride are represented by Leslie Cooper of the ACLU LGBT & HIV Project, Mary Catherine Roper and Molly Tack-Hooper of the ACLU of Pennsylvania, Fred T. Magaziner, Will W. Sachse and Catherine V. Wigglesworth of Dechert LLP. More information is available at aclupa.org/Phillyfosterparents.