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July 13, 2018

Pa. court rules child welfare agencies cannot discriminate against same-sex couples

A federal district court ruled in favor of same-sex couples and the ACLU on Friday

ACLU Foster Care
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A federal court in Pennsylvania has become the first to rule child welfare agencies do not have the right to discriminate against same-sex couples or anyone who does not meet an agency's religious standards from fostering children, according to the American Civil Liberties Union of Pennsylvania.

A federal district court ruled on Friday that the city of Philadelphia can require any foster agencies with city contracts to abide by nondiscrimination policies in a case brought against it by foster care agency Catholic Social Services (CSS).

The lawsuit began in March, when the city learned CSS was refusing to license same-sex couples to be foster parents. When the city stopped referring children to CSS, the agency and four of its foster parents sued the city to renew its contract.

"CSS argued that its right to free exercise of religion and free speech entitled it to reject qualified same-sex couples because they were same-sex couples, rather than for any reason related to their qualifications to care for children," the ACLU wrote of the lawsuit on its website.

CSS asked the court to issue a preliminary injunction that would order the city to resume referrals, despite CSS's refusal to comply with nondiscrimination policies and after the ACLU and ACLU of Pennsylvania filed a motion to intervene on June 8. 

CSS's preliminary injunction was denied on Friday. It plans to appeal "immediately," the agency said in a statement.

The issue of foster care shortages is an ongoing problem in the city. This past March, Philly's Department of Human Services put out its first call in more than a decade for 300 more foster homes it lacked, the Inquirer reported.

For a guardian to become a foster parent, they must get criminal and child-abuse background checks. They must also undergo an application process that dips into their personal family history, employment, medical history, education, income and community involvement.

“First and foremost, 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,” said Reggie Shuford, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Pennsylvania, 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. And we’re thrilled that the court rejected the claimed constitutional right to discriminate against loving families.”

The case, dubbed Fulton v. City of Philadelphia, refers to a foster parent named Sharonell Fulton. According to Becket, which is representing CSS and three foster families in the case, Fulton has fostered more than 40 children over 25 years. 

Currently, Fulton fosters two young siblings with special needs and is only able to do so with "the ongoing support of Catholic Social Services, which has provided [Fulton] with training, resources, and professional guidance for how to care for children," Becket wrote on its website.

“Foster children deserve loving homes, and foster parents like Ms. Fulton and Mrs. Paul have been waiting with open arms to welcome them,” said Lori Windham, senior counsel at Becket, in a statement. “But the city has put politics above the children, and today the court allowed the city’s discriminatory actions to continue — a decision we will immediately appeal.”


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