What’s at Stake in the Fulton Case

The outcome of a court case, Fulton vs. City of Philadelphia, heard by the U.S. Supreme Court on November 4, 2020, could dramatically reshape how LGBTQ people and same-sex couples, women, people of faith, unmarried couples, and others will receive taxpayer-funded supports such as job training programs, food assistance, emergency shelters, disaster relief agencies, and more.

Fulton v. City of Philadelphia centers on a Catholic child welfare agency that is suing the City of Philadelphia to receive taxpayer dollars for its child welfare services, despite the agency’s refusal to comply with the City’s nondiscrimination requirement. The question before the Court is whether the City of Philadelphia can enforce nondiscrimination provisions in city contracts or whether religiously affiliated agencies can claim an exemption from those terms. If the Court rules that religiously affiliated organizations that contract with federal, state, and local governments do not have to abide by contract terms, it would upend millions of people’s access to lifesaving and necessary services.

Today the Movement Advancement Project released a series of issue briefs analyzing what’s at stake in the Fulton case. Ultimately, a broad ruling against the City of Philadelphia could leave millions of people without access to needed publicly funded services–and discrimination could become a regular occurrence when trying to get needed social services or assistance such as food assistance, disaster relief and more.

Read the issue briefs: What’s At Stake in the Fulton Case

Millions of People Could Be Cut Off from Emergency Food Assistance

The Emergency Food Assistance Program (TEFAP) is one of several federal programs that provide emergency food assistance to low-income people, and in FY2020, Congress budgeted nearly $400 million for this vital program. Because states rely on food banks, pantries, and soup kitchens to provide TEFAP food, the impact of the Fulton case could be disastrous for the millions of people in the United States in need of food assistance. As a result of the pandemic and substantial job losses, food insecurity jumped from 1% for adults with children pre-pandemic to 14% in mid-August.

A Congressional Research Service study found that most food banks were secular nonprofits, but the majority of food pantries and soup kitchens were religiously affiliated. If the Court rules against the City of Philadelphia, taxpayer-funded organizations that provide food assistance could turn away those in need because of who they are, their religion, what their family looks like or more.

Individuals and Families Can Be Turned Away During a Disaster

When disaster strikes — whether a wildfire, a hurricane, a flood, or a pandemic — communities come together to help those in need. In FY2019, there were more than 50 major or catastrophic disasters amounting to a total of $12 billion in federal spending.

Federal funds, state and local funds and private agencies all work in close collaboration to provide food, shelter, transportation, and relief to people in crisis and to help rebuild communities. If the Court rules in favor of Fulton, religiously affiliated organizations that receive federal, state, and local contracts to provide disaster relief may be able to ignore nondiscrimination provisions and pick and choose whom to serve.

Cities and State Services Are at Risk

Whether it is construction, child welfare services, or health care, cities, counties, state governments, and the federal government rely on contracts to make sure services are provided. If the Court rules that governments can’t enforce contract requirements for religiously affiliated agencies that choose to pursue contracts, the results could be disastrous for how a wide range of government services are provided, including:

  • Firms that receive contracts for road construction could refuse to work on the weekends of holidays, making it more difficult for work to happen when it is safe and more convenient for drivers.
  • Contracted healthcare providers for the military, schools, counties, and others could refuse to care for certain patients or provide necessary medical care.
  • Contractors that provide school meals to students could refuse to offer certain kinds of food or accommodate dietary concerns.

Millions of People Could Be Turned Away During Times of Need

While the Fulton case is specifically about a city-contracted agency’s refusal to license same-sex couples, the case has the potential to permit discrimination against almost all people who do not meet an agency’s religious litmus test. When a government contracts with a private agency to provide public services, those private agencies should be required to meet contract terms that apply to all other agencies, including prohibitions on discrimination based on race or ethnicity, religion, sex, age, disability and/or sexual orientation and gender identity.

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.

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MAP is an independent, nonprofit think tank that provides rigorous research, insight and communications that help speed equality and opportunity for all.

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Movement Advancement Project

MAP is an independent, nonprofit think tank that provides rigorous research, insight and communications that help speed equality and opportunity for all.