Foster Mothers Challenge Philadelphia's 'Discriminatory' Adoption Agenda

Suit asks Supreme Court to end city reg targeting religious adoption, foster care agencies

U.S. Supreme Court / Getty Images
July 23, 2019

Two Philadelphia foster mothers are asking the Supreme Court to defend religious adoption agencies from a city policy that would declare them discriminatory and shut them down.

Sharonell Fulton, who has fostered more than 40 children through Catholic Social Services (CSS), and Toni Simms-Busch, a former social worker, want the Court to overturn a Philadelphia policy that targets religious groups for holding traditional views of marriage. Philadelphia currently has 6,000 children in foster care, but the regulation would shutter some of the longest-serving adoption agencies in the city.

CSS has never been asked to assign a child to a same-sex couple in its over century-long history. The petition, filed by The Becket Fund for Religious Liberty, argues that requiring CSS to change its policy would force the group to endorse a practice that directly contradicts its religious beliefs.

"As a Catholic agency, CSS cannot provide written endorsements for same-sex couples which contradict its religious teachings on marriage," the petition states. "Philadelphia's actions here were baseless, discriminatory, and entirely unnecessary."

The petition says the City of Philadelphia cut off the agency from receiving foster care referrals "minutes" after they met with the head of the DHS to discuss the city's newly passed resolution calling for an investigation into discrimination by religious agencies. The resolution was promoted by the mayor, who in 2016 called the Archbishop of the Diocese of Philadelphia "not Christian" for saying same-sex couples should refrain from receiving the Eucharist. The plaintiff argues the case is the result of a coordinated effort by the city to force religious organizations to endorse ideas that contract their beliefs.

"The mayor, city council, Department of Human Services, and other city officials have targeted CSS and attempted to coerce it into changing its religious practices in order to make such endorsements," the petition says. "[T]he City is trying to exclude CSS from foster care because CSS refuses to embrace the City’s beliefs about marriage."

The plaintiffs say same-sex couples and religious adoption agencies can co-exist to address the city's foster care crisis, pointing to four foster care agencies under contract with Philadelphia that are openly endorsed by the Human Rights Campaign. In April, the Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit ruled in Fulton v. Philadelphia that Catholic Social Services (CSS) can no longer function under contract with the city if they continue to hold the position that marriage is between a man and a woman.

Terry Schilling, executive director of American Principles Project, says his organization is eager to see the Supreme Court take up the case, which he says is a response to religious charities being "under severe threat."

"It's become crystal clear over the last few years that the totalitarian left will no longer tolerate any dissent from progressive orthodoxy in the public square," Schilling told the Washington Free Beacon. "We've seen it in the continued harassment of religious business owners like Colorado baker Jack Phillips, and we are also seeing it in the City of Philadelphia's relentless attempt to shut down Catholic Social Services over the agency's beliefs—endangering the fate of many foster children in the process."

Last year, Rep. Mike Kelly (R., Penn.) introduced the Child Welfare Provider Inclusion Act in response to the Fulton case. The bipartisan bill would make it illegal for agencies that receive federal funding to exclude organizations based on their religious beliefs.

The City of Philadelphia did not respond for comment.