The U.S. Supreme Court is currently considering a case that could let taxpayer-funded adoption and foster care agencies around the country use their religious beliefs as a reason to discriminate against LGBTQ people and others. New research from the Movement Advancement Project (MAP) shows the widespread impact that could have on children in care.

Fulton Infographic - Movement Advancement Project

Infographic from MAP’s August report, “The High Stakes in the Fulton Case

In a report released yesterday, “What’s at Stake in Fulton: Kids in the Foster System” (PDF), MAP used data from the Children’s Bureau (part of the Department of Health and Human Services) to show that more than 1,200 child placement agencies contract with city, county, and/or state governments to care for children. Of those, 39.8 percent agencies are religiously affiliated, mostly (88 percent) with mainstream Christian denominations.

Depending on how the Supreme Court rules in Fulton v. City of Philadelphia, the case it heard in early November, agencies around the country could be allowed to discriminate, and many children in the foster care system would be at risk. MAP notes that of course, “Just because an agency is religiously affiliated does not mean that it would seek a license to discriminate against LGBTQ families, single people, unmarried couples, or families who do not share the agency’s faith. In fact, many of these agencies would continue to serve diverse families even if the Supreme Court granted them a license to discriminate.”

At the same time, they warn, “The risk is not merely hypothetical. There are already clear examples of agencies seeking the ability to discriminate. And a June 2020 survey by the Center for American Progress and NORC at the University of Chicago found that two in five LGBTQ people said it would be “very difficult” or “not possible” to find another child placement agency if they were turned away by one, MAP relates.

MAP’s analysis of 2019 data also shows that children in the foster care system in the states that permit taxpayer-funded agencies to discriminate* were less likely to be placed with relatives and more likely to experience multiple placements, both of which are destabilizing and can negatively impact their well-being. States that allowed such discrimination made a combined 13 percent fewer placements with relatives compared to states without such legislation. And in those states, 5.4 percent more children (or a more than 9 percent increase) had two or more foster placements during their time in government care, as compared to other states. That difference equals an estimated 3,500 more children that experienced multiple placements. “If the Court granted a nationwide exemption to religious agencies, that 5.4% difference would amount to nearly 23,000 children currently in the foster system nationwide,” MAP concludes.

To counter the argument that closing religiously affiliated agencies that discriminate will have a similarly (or worse) negative effect on the homes available for children, MAP also notes that there is “no evidence that states with nondiscrimination policies have fewer registered foster families or more children in group homes than those without such laws.”

The court is expected to issue its ruling sometime in 2021, likely before the end of June. This is a case all of us should be watching.

*Kansas, Mississippi, North Dakota, Oklahoma, South Carolina, South Dakota, Tennessee, Texas, and Virginia all allow this; Tennessee passed its legislation in 2020, though, so its data was not included in the MAP analysis. Alabama and Michigan also allow religiously based discrimination, but not if agencies receive taxpayer funds.