On March 15, 2018, Philadelphia stopped placing foster children with families working with Catholic Social Services (CSS), which was just one among 30 foster agencies in the City. The City terminated the contract with CSS and made it illegal for CSS to continue providing any foster care services unless it abandoned its longstanding religious beliefs and instead endorsed the City’s beliefs about the nature of marriage. Sharonell Fulton and other foster mothers are standing up for Catholic Social Services, the agency that helped bring their families together.
Foster care agencies seek to place children in as ideal a situation as possible given the circumstances. One of CSS’s sincerely held religious beliefs is that marriage is between a man and a woman, and as such it seeks to place children in a home headed by a married mother and father — one that represents the diversity of the sexes. As such, CSS does not provide home studies or endorsements for unmarried heterosexual couples or same-sex couples. If asked, CSS would refer those couples to another agency. CSS’s religious beliefs have never prevented a child from finding a home. The important task of helping children in need is furthered by CSS’s work. Allowing agencies with a multiplicity of views invites more opportunities to provide homes for these children. By cutting off CSS, the City has made its foster care crisis even worse.
CSS’s religious beliefs were targeted by every branch of city government. City Council accused the agency of “discrimination” occurring “under the guise of” religion. The Mayor involved the City’s Human Relations Commission (after a history of disparaging comments against the Archdiocese). Commissioner Figueroa excoriated CSS’s leadership, telling them it was “not 100 years ago” and accusing them of failing to follow “the teachings of Pope Francis.” The City even admitted that it only investigated religious entities as to its policies regarding same-sex marriage.
Catholic Social Services found placement for some of the most difficult cases through their Catholic network. The city’s disdain for diversity is evident, as only those with traditional religious views regarding marriage were singled out for punishment. This is contrary to what is best in our American tradition, the ability to find ways in a pluralistic society to benefit from and work with each other in the ways that we can. Indeed, Catholic Social Services has been contributing liberally to the distressed and oppressed children in need of foster care for over a century and about 50 years before the City itself even became involved in foster care.
In January of 2020, the United States Supreme Court agreed to hear this case.
On June 17, 2021, the Supreme Court ruled unanimously to protect Catholic Social Services foster care agency from the illegal actions of Philadelphia, and ruled that Philadelphia refused to contract with CSS in violation of the Free Exercise Clause of the First Amendment.
Our Role in this Case
The Independence Law Center represented amici curiae parties, 15 Pennsylvania Senators, by filing an amici brief on their behalf supporting Sharonell Fulton and Catholic Social Services. Our brief explains the important religious freedom principles at stake and asks the court to reconsider a thirty-year-old, wrongly-decided case, Employment Division v. Smith. The Beckett Fund for Religious Liberty represented Catholic Social Services and Sharonell Fulton.