Over 400,000 children will go to bed tonight in state care. Many will eventually leave the foster system by returning to their families of origin, while others will be welcomed by loving adoptive parents. And some — nearly 20,000 each year — will face adulthood without a forever family, aging out of foster care with few sources of stability in their young lives.
There’s no question that our foster system is in crisis. As child welfare workers strain to meet the needs of vulnerable young people in communities nationwide, agencies should be doing everything in their power to limit the amount of time foster youth remain in care.
But an announcement from the Supreme Court this week signaled a move in the opposite direction. Fulton v. City of Philadelphia, likely to be heard this fall, asks whether publicly funded service providers should receive special exemptions from non-discrimination laws if their objections are faith-based.
Catholic Social Services, represented by the conservative Beckett Fund for Religious Liberty, has asked the court to weigh in on this issue. A growing number of states already permit government-contracted agencies to impose religious tests on prospective parents, frequently turning away LGBTQ+ applicants for failing to adhere to the agency’s religious beliefs. This is in spite of the fact that same-sex couples are eager to work toward alleviating an overwhelmed foster care system, as they are six times more likely to foster and four times more likely to adopt than straight couples.
In state after state, faith-based agencies continue to argue that the non-discrimination requirements that come along with public funding exclude providers with certain religious views. Requiring government contractors to treat all prospective parents equally, they argue, violates their religious freedom.
Non-discrimination laws do not require anyone — a doctor, an employer, a case manager — to change their religious beliefs. The freedom to believe as we choose is codified in the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution. That freedom, however, does not come with the ability to impose our beliefs on others or to abuse a position of power to exclude those who believe, live, or love differently than we do.
This means that some faith-based agencies have a difficult choice to make. When an agency, faith-based or otherwise, accepts government funding, it agrees to abide by the state or city’s non-discrimination requirements in the same way it consents to other obligations under its contract. In Fulton, the City of Philadelphia’s requirements specifically protect LGBTQ+ applicants, leaving service providers of all types to decide whether or not to participate without compelling them to change their views or participate in activities that violate their beliefs.
Catholic Social Services’s religious discrimination claim profoundly distorts our first freedom. A decision in its favor could open the floodgates for faith-based organizations in every sector to use public funding to undermine civil rights — all in the name of “freedom,” but only for a select few.
Religious freedom and non-discrimination protections are complementary values, rooted in the fundamental principle that every person should be treated equally under the law. Taxpayer dollars should never go toward programs that exclude or discriminate against participants, especially when doing so would only exacerbate an urgent foster care crisis.
As the Supreme Court takes on this landmark case, we urge the justices to remember the thousands of foster youth right now waiting for a safe and loving forever home. A favorable decision for Catholic Social Services would recast our first freedom as a means to harm the most vulnerable among us. Few things could be further from our constitutional ideals or the shared teachings of so many of our sacred traditions.
Katy Joseph, Esq., serves as the Policy and Legislation Advisor for Interfaith Alliance and is a co-convenor of the Faith for Equality coalition.