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Court: Philly Can Make Foster Care Agencies Abide by Antibias Law

James Byrne federal courthouse
AP photo of James Byrne federal courthouse in Philadelphia by Matt Rourke

The city was within its rights in ending a contract with an agency that wouldn't serve same-sex couples, says a federal judge.

While congressional Republicans promote a license to discriminate in child placement services and some states have already OK'd such a practice, a federal court in Pennsylvania has ruled that the city of Philadelphia can require agencies with city contracts to comply with its antidiscrimination laws.

The ruling marks "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," notes a press release from the American Civil Liberties Union, which submitted a brief in support of the city's stance.

The ruling came in a case involving Catholic Social Services, which claimed the city had violated its right to religious freedom by suspending its contract because it would not work with same-sex couples. The agency sought a temporary restraining order so it could resume providing foster care services under the contract, Philadelphia paper The Inquirer reports.

But Judge Petrese B. Tucker of the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania denied that request Friday, saying the city has an interest in assuring "that the pool of foster parents and resource caregivers is as diverse and broad as the children in need of foster parents," as quoted by The Inquirer.

City officials praised the ruling. "As the court found, the city has a legitimate interest in ensuring that when we employ contractors to provide governmental services, that those services are accessible to all Philadelphians who are qualified for the services," spokeswoman Deana Gamble said in a statement to the newspaper. "Regrettably, by refusing to certify same-sex couples, CSS is ruling out qualified families who are willing to provide care for children in need, who can be certified, and who have roots in this community."

The city's Department of Human Services will make some exceptions in working with Catholic Social Services. It will not remove any children already placed in homes by the agency, and it will allow placement of children with siblings already in a home provided by the organization, The Inquirer reports.

Catholic Social Services, which filed the suit along with three foster parents, plans to appeal. Another agency that had turned away a same-sex couple, Bethany Christian Services, has "changed its policy and will resume work with the city, according to court testimony," The Inquirer reports.

The ACLU also applauded Tucker's ruling. "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 ACLU of Pennsylvania, in a press release. "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."

The ruling could affect similar cases pending in Michigan and Texas, ACLU officials added. Some state- and county-level court, have ruled that governments can require child placement agencies to comply with antidiscrimination law or lose their contracts One such ruling came in 2011 in Illinois, which ended its contract with Catholic Charities because the group would not consider gay couples in civil unions (pre-marriage equality) as prospective adoptive or foster parents; a Sangamon County court upheld the state's policy. But this is the first ruling of its kind from a federal court, according to the ACLU.

In recent months, Kansas and Oklahoma have joined several other states in allowing faith-based agencies to retain state contracts even if they discriminate against people who offend their religious beliefs, such as LGBT people, single parents, or members of other faiths. And the U.S. House Appropriations Committee this week attached a "license to discriminate" amendment to a government funding bill, with all but one Republican on the committee voting for it. LGBT and other civil rights groups are fighting to keep the amendment from going any further.

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