Catholic Church Sues Philadelphia to Keep Foster Kids

PHILADELPHIA (CN) — Catholic Social Services has sued Philadelphia in federal court, claiming the City Council unconstitutionally stopped placing children in its foster homes because of the church’s opposition to gay marriage, “prioritiz(ing) political grandstanding over the needs of children.”

Joined by three of its foster parents, including lead plaintiff Sharonell Fulton, one of Catholic Social Services’ 16 legal claims is that the city breached its contract, under which the century-old nonprofit church agency is helping to care for 127 children today.

“Catholic Social Services exists to serve those in need, and it wants to continue serving foster children in Philadelphia,” lead attorney Nicholas Centrella wrote for the church. “Despite a foster care crisis and a need for more foster homes, the City of Philadelphia has decided to cut off foster placements for Catholic Social Services and prioritize political grandstanding over the needs of children.”

The complaint stems from a March 15 City Council resolution to find out which of its contracted foster care providers “have policies that prohibit the placement of children with LGBTQ people based on religious principles.” On that day, the church says, it learned that the city was suspending referrals to its foster parents and would not renew the contract that gives it status as a state-approved foster care provider.

Fulton says she has cared for more than 40 children in 25 years as a foster parent, including children with special medical needs. She claims that the two special-needs children she cares for today will be “immediately transferred” elsewhere if the church’s contract is not renewed. Fulton says she has worked with other state-approved foster care agencies, whose services she calls inferior to those of Catholic Social Services.

The city’s Department of Human Services said in an email that the church’s policies are inconsistent with “certain core City principles, including our non-discrimination rules.”

“While we can’t comment directly on the lawsuit, and are genuinely appreciative of the services that Catholic Social Services provides on the City’s behalf to [its] most vulnerable children and to the resource families that care for those children,” a city spokesperson wrote to Courthouse News. “We cannot allow discrimination against qualified couples who are ready to take on this important role, simply because of who they are.”

But Catholic Social Services says no such discrimination has ever occurred, and that the city is the one discriminating, against it and its foster parents and children.

“The City is penalizing Catholic Social Services, in violation of its contract and state and federal law, because the agency has Catholic beliefs about same-sex marriage,” the complaint states. The church says it never has discriminated against a child, “regardless of their race, color, sex, sexual orientation, gender identity, religion, national origin,” or seven other criteria — but, interestingly, does not claim that it never has discriminated in those ways against a prospective foster parent.

The church does claims, however, that “though no LGBT couple has filed a complaint against Catholic Social Services, and the agency would not stand in the way of any couple who wished to foster a child in need, the City has decided to penalize the agency because the City disagrees with its religious beliefs.”

Thus, eight of the 14 claims are constitutional, based on the First and 14th Amendments; three are based on the Pennsylvania Constitution; one is based on the City Charter; plus the contract claim and a claim of equitable estoppel.

The church seeks declaratory judgment, an injunction and costs of suit.

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