Court Sides With Philadelphia in Foster Child Dispute

PHILADELPHIA (CN) – City Council is justified in its decision to cut ties with a Catholic charity that refuses to place foster children with same-sex couples, a federal judge ruled Friday.

The Eastern District ruling stems from a March edict to halt funding to Catholic Social Services because the Archdiosean charity’s stance on gay marriage and adoption, which falls in line with that of the Catholic Church, is discriminatory against LGBTQ couples.

Catholic Social Services quickly struck back in court, claiming in a May federal complaint that the city’s decision violated its constitutional rights to religious freedom in the name of “political grandstanding.”

The move came at the expense of the 127 foster children the charity served at the time its funding was pulled, claimed three of its longtime foster parents in the original complaint.

The parents and the agency sought an injunction preventing the city from canceling their foster services provider contract.

In an evidentiary hearing that followed, each party contended that the other was violating their services contract by virtue of discrimination.

While Catholic Social Services claimed bias against its religious beliefs, the City of Philadelphia and its Department of Human Services said that the charity was violating the Non-Discrimination and Fair Practices clauses of its own contract.

Judge Petrece Tucker pointed out in her ruling that the contract’s Non-Discrimination clause forbids Catholic Social Services from rejecting prospective foster parents “based upon the location or condition of the family’s residence [or] their environmental or social condition.”

In statements to Courthouse News at the time of the original complaint, representatives from both City Council and the Department of Human Services said that CSS policies on gay marriage were inconsistent “with core city principles” regarding discrimination, and that they could not continue to refer prospective foster parents to an agency that upheld such beliefs.

Judge Tucker agreed, stating in her ruling that the City is protecting its interests and that its responsibility to its residents includes making sure that its services “are accessible to all Philadelphians who are qualified” to foster children.

“DHS and Philadelphia have a legitimate 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 and resource caregivers, “ the judge wrote in her decision.

The city also has a vested interest “in ensuring that individuals who pay taxes to fund government contractors are not denied access to those services,” Judge Tucker continued, and was merely acting in accordance with that interest when it ended its relationship with CSS.

City representatives echoed this sentiment, saying in a written statement Monday that their appreciation of the services CSS provides cannot supersede their responsibility to “ensure [that] those services are provided in a non-discriminatory manner.”

“By refusing to certify same-sex couples [as foster parents], CSS is ruling out qualified families who are willing to provide care for children in need, who can be certified, and who have roots in this community,” wrote City of Philadelphia Communications Director Deena Gamble in an e-mail to Courthouse News.

Gamble also noted that in the name of “the best interests of the children,” the City has “not ended current CSS foster placements,” only suspended new ones.

An attorney for CSS, meanwhile, contended that the ruling nonetheless compromised the well-being of children in need.

“Foster children deserve loving homes, and [CSS] foster parents… have been waiting with open arms to welcome them,” said Lori Windham, senior counsel at Becket Law, which represents Catholic Social Services and three foster families.

“But the city has put politics above the children, and today the court allowed those discriminatory actions to continue – a decision we will immediately appeal,” wrote Ms. Windham in an e-mail statement forwarded on behalf of CSS and the Archdiocese of Philadelphia.

In her ruling, Judge Tucker had also shot down CSS’ argument that the end of its run as a foster family service provider would leave children at loose ends as they were transferred out of the care of CSS-affiliated parents and into new homes.

“While transferring to another agency may be difficult, uncertain and emotionally challenging, transferring to other agencies is neither impossible nor unlikely to be successful,” states the ruling.

Furthermore, states the judge, a Philadelphia DHS representative presented data in evidentiary hearings showing that the end of the City’s relationship with CSS “has had little to no effect on the operation of Philadelphia’s foster care system.”

The lack of ill effect on the beneficiaries of CSS’ charity work leaves the organization with no leg to stand on when it comes to proving that it sustained the damage necessary for the court to provide an injunction reversing the city’s edict, the ruling says.

The decision was issued on Friday in a 64-page memorandum.

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