Federal Court Rules Against Catholic Foster Care Agency

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A federal appeals court sided with the city of Philadelphia against a foster parent and the Catholic foster care agency with which she works in a Monday ruling.

In Sharonell Fulton, et al. v. City of Philadelphia, the court upheld a city policy that prevents Catholic Social Services from finding families for foster children, according to a press release from Becket Law.

In 2018, the city of Philadelphia made an urgent call for more foster parents to help the "nearly 6,000 children and youth" in foster care in the city. Despite being a top-ranked foster agency, Catholic Social Services was not allowed to place more children with families.

A week after making the call for more foster parents, Philadelphia stopped referring children to Catholic Social Services and then threatened to terminate its contract with the organization if it did not give up its religious beliefs about marriage. Becket notes that no family had ever filed a complaint with Catholic Social Services on account of its Catholic mission, and no child had ever been unable to find a home because of the organization's beliefs.

Despite the foster care crisis in the city, many families licensed through Catholic Social Services are unable to take in children because of the city's decision. Furthermore, if the contract is terminated, children already placed with families could be at risk and their foster families could lose needed support.

Sharonell Fulton and other foster parents licensed through Catholic Social Services took the city to court.

"As a single mom and woman of color, I've known a thing or two about discrimination over the years," Sharonell Fulton wrote in an op-ed. "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."

The Third U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled unanimously on Monday that the city could exclude Catholic Social Services from its foster placement program because the organization would not work with same-sex couples.

Circuit Judge Thomas Ambro said the city was trying to stop what it believed to be a "clear violation" of a city anti-discrimination law.

"The question in our case is … whether CSS was treated differently because of its religious beliefs," Ambro wrote. "Based on the record before us, that question has a clear answer: no."

Lori Windham, senior counsel at Becket, expressed disappointment in the ruling, but pledged to keep fighting.

"This ruling is devastating to the hundreds of foster children who have been waiting for a family and to the dozens of parents working with Catholic Social Services who have been waiting to foster a child," Windham said. "We're disappointed that the court decided to let the city place politics above the needs of kids and the rights of parents, but we will continue this fight."