Federal Judge in Pennsylvania Denies Child Welfare Agencies a License to Discriminate Against LGBTQ People

By Adam Polaski • July 14, 2018 • 9:18 am

On July 13, a federal judge in Pennsylvania ruled in favor of the City of Philadelphia in the case of Sharonell Fulton et al. v. City of Philadelphia, denying child welfare agencies a “license to discriminate” against LGBTQ people and others. The ruling marks the first time a federal court has ruled that child welfare agencies with government contracts may not exclude same-sex couples or require any other religious test for the purpose of determining who may foster or adopt children.

The case involves the city’s decision to terminate a contract with Catholic Social Services of the Archdiocese of Philadelphia, claiming that the agency was discriminatory against LGBTQ people and those who don’t “abide by the agency’s teachings.” The ruling from the federal judge underlined that Philadelphia is permitted to require child welfare agencies with city contracts to follow the city’s nondiscrimination ordinance, which protects LGBTQ people from discrimination.

The ACLU wrote:

Catholic Social Services (CSS) asked the court to issue a preliminary injunction ordering Philadelphia to resume referrals of cases to CSS despite its unwillingness to comply with city nondiscrimination requirements that apply to potential same-sex foster parents. The court denied CSS’s request, rejecting its argument that the Constitution requires the city to permit government-contracted agencies performing public child welfare services to turn away prospective foster and adoptive families based on religious objections to same-sex couples.

Reggie Shuford, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Pennsylvania, said:

“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. 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 involves the Support Center for Child Advocates and Philadelphia Family Pride, represented by Leslie Cooper of the ACLU LGBT & HIV Project, Mary Catherine Roper and Molly Tack-Hooper of the ACLU of Pennsylvania, Fred T. Magaziner, Will W. Sachse and Catherine V. Wigglesworth of Dechert LLP.

This ruling comes a day after a hearing in a similar case, Dumont v. Lyon, filed by a same-sex couple as a challenge to a law in Michigan that allows child welfare agencies a license to discriminate.

Ten states have laws on the books that allow child welfare agencies to discriminate against LGBTQ youth and families – Alabama, Kansas, Michigan, Mississippi, North Dakota, Oklahoma, South Carolina, South Dakota, Texas, Virginia. Fives of those bills were passed in 2017 or 2018.

According to data from the Every Child Deserves a Family campaign, more than 21,000 youth were awaiting adoption in states with these discriminatory laws on the books in 2015. Same-sex couples are exponentially more likely to be interested in adopting children or serving as foster parents. Policies like today’s shameful anti-LGBTQ amendment stands only to allow more agencies to turn away capable, loving parents – and at the end of the day, that harms children and makes it harder for more kids to be placed in loving homes.


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