PHILADELPHIA — Sharonell Fulton remembers a night when she accepted four children she’d never met before into her Philadelphia home. As a foster mother, she was used to caring for children in need, but this case was special. It was Christmas Eve.

These children arrived at her home with few possessions besides the clothes on their backs. She recalls that Catholic Social Services workers didn’t just drop the children off with the necessities, but also wrapped gifts so that the children could celebrate Christmas in a home where they were cared for.

Fulton has been a foster mother of more than 40 children over the past 25 years through Catholic Social Services (CSS). She also took in two brothers who were 5- and 7-years-old after they’d spent weeks in a hospital being treated for third-degree burns after being doused with a pot of boiling water by a drug-addicted adult.

“These boys lived in my home their entire childhood, and I raised them as my own, healing over time not just their wounds, but their hearts,” Fulton wrote in an opinion piece that appeared in the Philadelphia Inquirer.

Fulton insists she couldn’t have done this on her own, but often needed the help, expertise and resources provided by CSS. For Fulton, being a foster parent is a calling, a calling inspired by her Catholic faith.

Ironically, it’s that very faith that now prevents her from accepting more fostering children in the city of Philadelphia through CSS.

Earlier this year, in an unexpected move, the city of Philadelphia announced that it would cease all foster-care placements through CSS, which has served the city’s children in need for over a century, because it didn’t agree with the Church’s teaching on marriage. The city demanded that unless CSS was willing to place children with homosexual couples, it would be cut off from the ability to help foster children. The city in March declared CSS guilty of “discrimination.”

The city undertook this course of action, however, without actually having ever received a complaint about CSS on this issue and despite just days before issuing a desperate plea for 300 new foster families.

According to the Becket, a religious-liberty law firm that is representing CSS, as well as a number of foster parents against the city, more than a dozen foster homes are currently not being utilized by the city because of their unnecessary action.

Becket’s website states that, “by suspending referrals to Catholic Social Services, the city has made its foster-care crisis even worse” and “needlessly keeps at-risk children away from available homes solely because the city disagrees with the foster agency’s religious beliefs about marriage.”

The lawsuit states that the city has engaged in “unabashed religious targeting” and “has chosen to let those children languish rather than place them with parents who work with Catholic.”

One of the foster parents who signed onto this case is Cecelia Paul, who has opened her home to more than 130 children over the past 46 years. In 2015, Philadelphia even honored her as one of its foster parents of the year. But because Paul is certified through Catholic Social Services, her home has been vacant for the past five months.

Lori Windham, senior counsel at Becket, told the Register that she believed Philadelphia was “trying to score political points at the expense of kids.”

 

Religious Liberty Under Attack

This attack on religious liberty is no longer an anomaly throughout the country.

In September 2017, the American Civil Liberties Union sued the state of Michigan on behalf of two same-sex couples, arguing that the state is violating the First Amendment’s Establishment Clause by allowing faith-based agencies such as St. Vincent Catholic Charities of Lansing, Michigan, to receive state funds because of their stance on marriage.

It should come as little surprise that the parameters of religious liberty are being questioned, as several cases have made nationwide headlines. In some cases, such as some against the Health and Human Services’ contraception mandate or Trinity Lutheran, in which a religious school won the right to apply for state grants, the outcome was positive.

But in others, the outcome has been chilling. In one religious-liberty case that made it all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court, Justice Samuel Alito delivered a blistering dissent, calling a decision by the high court to refuse to stand with a pharmacist who objected on religious grounds to dispensing abortifacients “an ominous sign” for those interested in preserving religious liberty.

“If this is a sign of how religious-liberty claims will be treated in the years ahead, those who value religious freedom have cause for great concern,” he wrote.

In this Philadelphia case, the U.S. Supreme Court also refused to side with religious liberty. CSS sought temporary relief from the city’s policy while the case made its way through appeals, but the high court declined. However, Windham said she was hopeful about the case going forward, as three conservative members of the court, Justices Clarence Thomas, Samuel Alito and Neil Gorsuch, all said they would have granted the request for temporary relief.

 

Infringing on Free Exercise?

CSS, along with several foster parents, is asking the court to order the city to renew the agency’s contract, arguing that the city is infringing on its right to free exercise of religion and free speech.

Predictably, the ACLU of Pennsylvania joined the suit on the side of the city.

Reggie Shuford, executive director of the ACLU of Pennsylvania, said in a release, “Loving, supportive same-sex couples are willing to open their homes to kids in need, but CSS’ policy gives them one less avenue to make that happen. It would be a tremendous loss for our children if agencies were permitted to turn away good families based on failure to meet religious criteria.”

The reality is, however, that CSS never turned away same-sex couples, but had a policy to simply refer them to other agencies — but even that had never come up. But in July, U.S. district Judge Petrese Tucker ruled in favor of the city, saying that the city had an interest in ensuring “that the pool of foster parents and resource caregivers is as diverse and broad as the children in need of foster parents.”

As of now, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit, is scheduled to hear the case in November.

Windham said this decision by Philadelphia is an attack on religious liberty and sends a chilling message to religious people that they cannot live out their faith in the public sphere. According to Windham, the message is simple and scary: “Catholics need not apply.”

In the lawsuit, Becket pointed out that the Mayor Jim Kenney of Philadelphia has a disturbing history of publicly criticizing the archdiocese. Mayor Kenney has said, among other things, that he “could care less about the people at the archdiocese,” called Archbishop Charles Chaput’s actions “not Christian,” and exhorted Pope Francis “to kick some a-- here!”

In fact, the process itself between the city and CSS could be seen as targeting the Catholic organization for its views on marriage.

Right before ceasing all referrals to CSS, Cynthia Figueroa, commissioner of the Philadelphia Department of Human Services (DHS), reportedly summoned CSS’ management to DHS headquarters and lectured them that they should follow the city’s understanding of “the teachings of Pope Francis” concerning marriage.

 

Seeking Support

According to the suit, in that same meeting, James Amato, executive vice president and secretary for Catholic Human Services in Philadelphia, noted that it had been serving foster children for more than 100 years. Figueroa reportedly told him “times have changed,” and it is “not 100 years ago.”

CSS has made it plain that, absent judicial relief, it will be forced to close its foster program within months.

To prevent this, Fulton wrote an impassioned plea that appeared in the same Philadelphia Inquirer piece, saying, “As a single mom and woman of color, I’ve known a thing or two about discrimination over the years. But I have never known vindictive religious discrimination like this, and I feel the fresh sting of bias watching my faith publicly derided by Philadelphia’s politicians.”

“To think that the city would rather score political points than to offer true hope and a future to our city’s most vulnerable children makes me angry,” she said. “They deserve hope; they deserve love; they deserve a city doing all it can to find them a home.”

The Jewish Coalition for Religious Liberty also condemned Philadelphia’s actions, noting “the threat such overreach poses to Jews and all minority faiths.”

Eight states also filed a brief explaining why “promoting a diversity of child-placing agencies, religious and nonreligious, maximizes the placement opportunities for children.”

Forty-three members of Congress also joined a brief to emphasize the importance of protecting religious social-service providers.  

“Philadelphia’s actions have left foster parents and religious foster agencies nationwide wondering who’s next,” said Windham. “We’re grateful for this outpouring of support by those who don’t want to see Catholic, or other successful foster-care agencies, punished for following their faith.”

Jamie Hill, a former foster child, submitted an amicus brief for CSS, saying that, for some children, “a foster home is the difference between life and death.”

She added that it seemed strange that the city would make an issue of this. “It is not like this issue suddenly came up. This has been part of what the Catholic Church has taught forever,” she said. “I was really shocked that the government could force a religious organization to do something against what they believe in.”  

“CSS needs to keep open,” she said. “It saved my life.”

Matthew Archbold writes from Philadelphia and blogs at NCRegister.com.