Last week, a federal judge ruled that religiously-affiliated child placement agencies do not have a right to refuse to place children with same-sex couples by citing religious beliefs.
Judge Petrese B. Tucker of the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania ruled that the city of Philadelphia can keep in place its policy requiring all the foster and adoption agencies with which it contracts to abide by the city’s nondiscrimination policies, which prohibit discrimination based on sexual orientation.
Tucker found that because CSS refuses to place children with same-sex couples or LGBTQ individuals, they had violated the city’s nondiscrimination law, and are therefore not entitled to continue to receive taxpayer dollars. Currently, the organization has a $19.4 million contract with the Philadelphia Department of Human Services, reports NBC News.
Tucker found that the city of Philadelphia has at least six potential ways of proving it has a “legitimate interest” in ensuring the prohibition on anti-LGBTQ discrimination remains intact, including ensuring that contractors abide by local laws, that the services they offer are equally available or accessible to all city residents and taxpayers whose dollars help fund child placement efforts, and that their laws expand the number of potential foster parents or adoptive parents capable of taking charge of children under the DHS system.
Tucker also ruled that if contractors are allowed to discriminate based on religious beliefs, those affected could — and would likely be successful in bringing lawsuits alleging that CSS’s policy violates the Equal Protection Clause and Establishment Clause of the U.S. Constitution.
The Becket Fund fiercely criticized Judge Tucker’s decision.
“Foster children deserve loving homes,” Lori Windham, senior counsel at the Becket Fund, said in a statement. “But the trial court allowed the City to continue its harmful policy — a decision we expect to change with this appeal.”
Currently, 10 states permit child placement agencies to refuse to place children with prospective parents based on the agency’s stated beliefs or an individual worker’s beliefs. But if other courts apply the same rationale used by Judge Tucker, any one of those so-called “conscience clause” exemptions could be challenged, and potentially be ruled unconstitutional.
Civil rights, LGBTQ, and child welfare advocates applauded the ruling as a crucial one in the ongoing fight over how broad religious exemptions should be, or whether they should be granted at all.
“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,” Reggie Shuford, the executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Pennsylvania, said in a statement. “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.”
“When faith-based agencies choose to receive taxpayer dollars to provide public child welfare services, their religious beliefs cannot trump the best interests of the children in their care,” added Leslie Cooper, deputy director of the national ACLU’s LGBT and HIV Project. “The court saw it was not only permissible for the city of Philadelphia to prohibit discrimination by its contract agencies, but that allowing the use of religious screening requirements in the public child welfare system would likely violate the Constitution.”