Should Child Welfare Agencies Be Able to Cite Religion to Discriminate? Experts Urge Supreme Court to Say No

Should Child Welfare Agencies Be Able to Cite Religion to
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More than 1,000 experts and organizations filed nearly 50 briefs with the U.S. Supreme Court yesterday arguing that taxpayer-funded child welfare agencies should not be able to discriminate against LGBTQ people and others by citing religious beliefs. The implications of this case could go far beyond child welfare, however.

Fulton Infographic - Movement Advancement Project

The case, Fulton v. City of Philadelphia, began in 2018, when the City of Philadelphia stopped referring foster children to Catholic Social Services (CSS) because the agency would not license qualified same-sex couples to be foster or adoptive parents, a violation of the city’s anti-discrimination laws. CSS then brought a lawsuit in federal district court, claiming those laws impinged on their freedom of religion. Both the district court and an appeals court ruled in the city’s favor, saying that it can require foster care agencies with city contracts to adhere to the city’s nondiscrimination laws. CSS appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court, which said in February that it would hear the case this fall; this past Wednesday it scheduled oral arguments for November 4.

In June, the Trump administration filed a brief siding with CSS and saying that taxpayer-funded child service agencies should be allowed to discriminate. Now, major LGBTQ organizations, child welfare professional associations, LGBTQ youth service providers, faith-based foster care agencies, faith leaders, legal scholars, civil rights organizations, bipartisan elected officials, and others have filed 46 friend-of-the-court briefs opposing such discrimination. Freedom for All Americans, one of the groups involved in the strategy behind the briefs, helped recruit signatories including approximately 450 faith leaders and clergy, 35 current and former Republican elected officials and leaders, more than 30 national businesses, and more than 165 mayors and local governments (including the U.S. Conference of Mayors) representing 50 million Americans.

A new report released this week by the Movement Advancement Project (MAP) further shows the harms of religious exemptions in the child welfare system. Among other things, the report reminds us of the extent of taxpayer funding in the system, with $7.3 billion in dedicated federal child welfare funding going to states and counties and then to individual child-placing agencies, and an estimated $29.9 billion in federal, state, and local funds spent on child welfare in 2016. The impact of allowing discrimination in this system would be immense, as MAP explains:

Research finds that Black and Native American children, children with disabilities, and LGBTQ youth are overrepresented in the child welfare system. That’s why robust nondiscrimination protections within the child welfare system based on race, religion, gender, disability, sexual orientation, gender identity, and other characteristics are so important even though many states lack explicit protections for sexual orientation,  gender identity, and gender expression. Without such protections, children may be mistreated or separated from their families because of factors unrelated to their safety and well-being, and otherwise qualified families may be denied the ability to foster and adopt children in need.

Depending on how the Supreme Court rules and how broad or narrow its ruling is, the Fulton case could create a license to discriminate that would go against the best interests of the hundreds of thousands of children and millions of families who receive services through the system, MAP says.

This undermines the very premise of taxpayer-funded social services: that they are designed to serve all of the public.

Beyond child welfare, a very broad ruling could even “result in nearly every entity that receives government funding, ranging from child welfare agencies to soup kitchens and those offering job training programs, being able to claim a religious exemption to a wide array of regulations and laws.” It could mean that “government-funded service providers choosing to serve only those who share their own beliefs or refusing to provide critical services to those who don’t.”

MAP doesn’t pull any punches: “This undermines the very premise of taxpayer-funded social services: that they are designed to serve all of the public.”

Visit the Freedom for All Americans website to read more about the case, sign up for updates, and learn how you can help spread the word about the harm of using taxpayer funds to discriminate.

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