Religious Exemptions in Child Welfare System Would Harm Millions of Children
More than seven million children interact with the child welfare system in a given year in the United States, including nearly half a million who are currently in foster care. This fall, the U.S. Supreme Court will hear oral arguments in Fulton v. City of Philadelphia, a case related to taxpayer-funded child welfare agencies. This case could harm children in the system and jeopardize the ability of governments to enforce nondiscrimination protections more broadly.
If the Court rules that the taxpayer-funded Catholic Social Services (CSS) can refuse to comply with the City of Philadelphia’s nondiscrimination requirement and reject qualified parents simply because of who they are or what religion they are, it is children who will ultimately pay the price.
Today the Movement Advancement Project released a new report, The High Stakes in the Fulton Case: Undermining the Vital Role of Child Welfare Laws & Regulations in Protecting America’s Children. The report examines the potential outcomes of the Fulton v. City of Philadelphia case, which could create a license to discriminate throughout the child welfare system.
Religious child welfare agencies could be given a right to demand taxpayer funding while rejecting qualified and loving parents simply because they are Jewish, Catholic, LGBTQ, or single parents. This means that child welfare agencies could keep a child in a government group home rather than place them with loving, qualified parents.
In fact, this has already happened: the largest taxpayer-funded foster care agency in South Carolina will only accept evangelical Christian families and has turned away Catholic and Jewish families. When entire groups of otherwise qualified families are shut out of the child welfare system, it means fewer adoptive families and fewer placements for children.
Nearly every religiously affiliated social service agency that receives government funding — such as job training programs, food assistance, emergency shelters, disaster relief agencies, and more — might claim a right to discriminate.
A ruling wouldn’t just allow agencies to discriminate against LGBTQ people; it could also be used to deny essential government services to people of minority faiths, unmarried couples, and others. For example, a taxpayer-funded homeless shelter could deny beds to people who are LGBTQ, Jewish, Muslim or Mormon.
Religious agencies might be able to claim a religious exemption to a wide array of regulations and laws, including those that protect public health and safety — like building codes, sanitation requirements and food safety regulations. For example, a church-affiliated day care center could claim it is not subject to state laws governing health, safety or licensing of such facilities.
Freedom of religion is important; it’s one of our nation’s fundamental values. That’s why it’s already protected by the First Amendment to the Constitution. But that freedom doesn’t give any of us the right to impose our beliefs on others, or to discriminate.
Ultimately, a broad ruling in favor of the CSS could leave millions of people without access to needed publicly funded services — and discrimination against LGBTQ people and same-sex couples, women, people of faith, unmarried couples, and more would become a regular occurrence when seeking needed social services or assistance.
The report is released in partnership with Children’s Rights, Family Equality, Lambda Legal, National Center on Adoption and Permanency, the North American Council on Adoptable Children, and Voice for Adoption.