Child welfare advocates across the country are right to be concerned after a recent court order allowed Philadelphia to suspend its contract with Catholic Social Services, a faith-based foster care agency. It is yet another example of the growing trend in America of excluding religious organizations with long and proven track records in the field, all in the name of ideological conformity. You don't have to be a grateful adoptive parent like I am to feel alarmed by laws that put successful agencies out of action at a time when the growing number of children needing families calls for an all-hands-on-deck approach.
Despite decades of successfully partnering with Catholic Social Services, Philadelphia city officials told the agency in March that they would stop referring children to them unless they endorsed foster placement with same-sex couples. This demand was made even though not a single same-sex couple had ever approached the agency seeking to become foster parents. And city officials persisted despite Catholic Social Services' suggestion that they would refer these couples to another agency, something agencies do for any number of reasons.
The city was unrelenting.
Unable to maintain its placement policy and keep its doors open, Catholic Social Services has sought relief in court, citing their right to religious liberty. U.S. District Court Judge Petrese Tucker upheld the city's strong-arm policy. Ironically, she wrote that Philadelphia has a "legitimate interest" in ensuring "the pool of foster parents and resource caregivers is as diverse and broad as the children in need."
Putting faith-based agencies out of business has the opposite effect of ensuring the diversity of foster parents. This is because many of the aspiring parents who choose Catholic or Christian organizations to help them navigate the difficult process of bringing home a child are religious themselves and need the encouragement and assistance of people who speak their language, share their values, and understand their worldview.
That was exactly the case for my husband and me when we ventured into the complicated world of adoption. The Christian agency that we found after many false starts with secular organizations was a perfect fit for us. The process lasted two, very long, years, and the affirmations of hope and faith in God's providence that we received from the kind people at the agency kept us strong and plodding forward. I'm not sure we would have been able to hold out against the many disappointments and difficulties without that particular kind of assistance. Now, whenever we look at our little girl, we remember gratefully their tireless support.
Likewise, every couple needs just the right kind of assistance during an adoption or foster-care experience. In Philadelphia, same-sex couples have many organizations to which they can turn. Twenty-eight of the 30 existing agencies that contract with Philadelphia are willing and happy to place children with two fathers or two mothers. Only two insist on a mother and father for the at-risk kids that they help, and one of those is Catholic Social Services.
Taking the few organizations that can't place children with same-sex couples out of the equation doesn't affect the ability of these couples to become foster parents, but it does reduce the number of choices and options for at-risk children while reducing the diversity of support available for prospective parents.
Of course, Philadelphia and other jurisdictions remain free to speak their own message and to place children with same-sex foster parents. In fact, Philadelphia has actively undertaken its own direct recruitment of same-sex foster families. Catholic Social Services has never interfered with these efforts. But the city cannot coerce the organization to publicly promote the city's views or alter its sincerely-held religious beliefs that the best interests of a child are to be placed in a foster home with a mother and father.
If Judge Tucker's order allowing the city to effectively shut down Catholic Social Service's foster care program stands, vulnerable children in need will be the ones who suffer the consequences. It's a secondary consideration, although an important one with wide implications, that the city is effectively imposing an ideological conformity that violates the religious liberty of agency workers, birth parents, and prospective parents. Our hope is that the appeals court reverses Judge Tucker's order and allows these organizations to continue their invaluable and irreplaceable work.
Dr. Grazie Pozo Christie is a policy advisor for The Catholic Association.