Bipartisan Bill Moves to Protect Religious Foster Care

Pa. Rep. Kelly touts bill amid Philadelphia crackdown on Catholic agency

Mike Kelly
August 9, 2018

Lawmakers are considering a bill to protect religious foster care and adoption agencies in response to recent crackdowns on religious charities by state and local governments.

Rep. Mike Kelly (R., Penn.) is sponsoring legislation aimed at protecting the religious liberty of charities that provide adoption and foster care services. The bipartisan bill, called the Child Welfare Provider Inclusion Act, would prohibit agencies that receive federal funding from excluding organizations based on their sincerely held beliefs.

The bill strikes close to home for the Pennsylvania Republican. One of the state's largest foster care agencies, Catholic Social Services, could be shuttered amid a shortage crisis after Philadelphia used discrimination ordinances to cut off agencies that do not support gay marriage. Kelly said lawmakers should be increasing options for placing needy children, rather than taking them away to advance a political agenda.

"The originators in foster care and adoptive care are being targeted by political opportunists," Kelly told the Washington Free Beacon. "They're going to starve these organizations and shut off critical revenue streams for these programs. ... The litmus test is are you concerned for the children or eliminating anyone that doesn't agree with you."

Philadelphia has said it could not continue its partnership with Catholic Social Services under the city's anti-discrimination policies. In March, it cut ties with the group despite the fact that regulators had received no complaints or allegations of discrimination against the charity. It is not the only government agency to target religious charities. Massachusetts, Washington, D.C., Illinois, and California have all ceased placing children in homes represented by religious charities that only partner with heterosexual couples.

Kelly said such crackdowns have created a "watershed moment for religious liberty" while also threatening the well-being of children. Philadelphia issued an urgent plea for more than 300 new foster homes to address its shortage. CSS has said it has more than 30 homes ready to help meet the city's needs, but are currently empty.

"We think every child deserves a loving home, and the only issue we should be thinking about is the issue of taking care of these kids," Kelly said. "There are so many children in need."

The Trump administration has also moved to address religious liberty protections in the Department of Health and Human Services. Those policies, however, have come under fire from Democratic lawmakers. In June, Rep. Bobby Scott (D., Va.) compared protecting religious adoption agencies to Jim Crow era discrimination. Rep. Kelly said his bill is an "inclusion bill, not an exclusion bill." To his knowledge, no religious charity was attempting to strip other pro-gay institutions of their ability to help children.

"The most distasteful part of this debate is certain people are saying 'because you don't think like we do, we're going to shut you down,'" Kelly said. "The faith-based community isn't attacking other groups. They're being called out because of their deeply held religious beliefs."

Religious liberty groups are also throwing support for the bill behind the scenes on Capitol Hill, which has led the act to attract more than 100 cosponsors, including members of both parties. Terry Schilling, executive director at the American Principles Project, said the direct targeting of religious charities is discriminatory. He said the bill could head off future attempts from regulators to stifle organizations because of their religious beliefs about the family.

"Faith-based adoption and foster care providers are far too important to our families and to our communities to be shut down by discriminatory governments," Schilling said. "We urge Congress to pass it swiftly so that no more faith-based adoption or foster care services are shut down, and every child gets the chance to find a loving family."

The bill sits before the House Ways and Means Subcommittee on Human Resources.