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Faith-Based Foster Care Fight: Philadelphia in Court Over Biblical Marriage Spat


Religious groups, lawmakers and several states urged an appeals court on Tuesday to rule in favor of a faith-based social services agency in its case against the city of Philadelphia.

The city terminated its contract with Catholic Social Services (CSS) in March after discovering that the agency does not work with same-sex couples. Philadelphia requires foster care agencies to follow its nondiscrimination policies, and the city believes CSS's views on marriage are unacceptable.

"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. "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. "

CSS sued the state, arguing that they were being discriminated against because of their religious beliefs.

"Catholic Social Services is, at its core, an institution founded on faith-based principles," Ken Gavin, a spokesman for the Archdiocese of Philadelphia, told The Inquirer. "The Catholic Church does not endorse same-sex unions, based upon deeply held religious beliefs and principles. As such, CSS would not be able to consider foster care placement within the context of a same-sex union."

In July, US District Judge Petrese B. Tucker ruled in the case of in Sharonell Fulton, et al. v. City of Philadelphia that the city had not violated CSS's religious freedoms by suspending the organization's contract.

Tucker said Philadelphia's Department of Human Services has a legitimate interest in ensuring "that the pool of foster parents and resource caregivers is as diverse and broad as the children in need of foster parents."

The religious agency then sought injunctive relief from the US Supreme Court but was denied on Thursday. The case is under appeal and will be heard by the Third Circuit Court of Appeals in Philadelphia next month.

The Jewish Coalition for Religious Liberty is just one of several groups voicing their support of CSS, arguing that "Jews have frequently faced the specter of government actors directing 'proper' understandings of their faith," and that government overreach is a threat to all religious minorities.

Eight states also filed a brief explaining why "promoting a diversity of child-placing agencies, religious and nonreligious, maximizes the placement opportunities for children."

Forty-three members of Congress joined a brief in support of religious social services agencies.

The Becket Fund is representing CSS and believes Philadelphia's policies can set a dangerous example for other cities.

"Philadelphia's actions have left foster parents and religious foster agencies nationwide wondering who's next," said Lori Windham, senior counsel at Becket. "We're grateful for this outpouring of support by those who don't want to see Catholic, or other successful foster care agencies, punished for following their faith."

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