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Religious intolerance at the heart of debate over same-sex foster parents | Opinion

The Third Circuit Court of Appeals has a chance to right this wrong and help more children grow and thrive in Philadelphia.

Sharonell Fulton has fostered over 40 children. She plants a tree or rose bush in her front yard with her foster children as a symbol of their growth.
Sharonell Fulton has fostered over 40 children. She plants a tree or rose bush in her front yard with her foster children as a symbol of their growth.Read moreBeckett

Wayne Thomas was the answer to 3-year-old Brittany's prayer more than 25 years ago.  Brittany prayed for someone to play with as she watched the children at the Our Lady of Victory Catholic School playground across from her grandmother's house in West Philadelphia.  Brittany's grandmother is Sharonell Fulton, one of the foster parents suing the City of Philadelphia for freezing its referral of foster children through Catholic Social Services (CSS).

At the same time little Brittany prayed for someone to play with, Wayne and his brother Sean were living in a dilapidated house with a drug-addicted uncle and aunt who fought viciously.  During one fight, the boys' uncle mistakenly threw boiling water on them. Wayne thinks a neighbor called the police after hearing their cries.  An ambulance was soon rushing the boys (ages 5 and 7) to the hospital.

>> READ MORE: When foster-care agencies discriminate against potential parents, the kids suffer most | Opinion

Upon their discharge, CSS placed Wayne and Sean as foster children with Fulton.  Wayne stayed with Brittany and her younger siblings in the Fulton home until he was 19.  Wayne and his brother consider Brittany and Fulton's other two grandchildren as siblings. Wayne calls Fulton "Meme."  Meme "did not treat us any different than her own," says Wayne today.

Earlier this year, the city demanded that CSS agree to endorse same-sex couples as foster parents.  CSS refused, citing centuries-old Catholic teaching on marriage and the family.  Instead, CSS proposed referring same-sex couples to one of the other 29 foster-care agencies partnering with the city.  But the city's commitment to long-time foster parents, such as Mrs. Fulton, and foster children, such as Wayne, was less important than the opportunity for political grandstanding.   Unwilling to accommodate CSS, the city has refused to refer any more children for foster placement to the agency.

Wayne is one of the former foster-care children, who with former foster parents,  have joined the Catholic Association in supporting CSS's legal challenge to the Philadelphia dictate. They have stepped forward to share their experiences  growing up in CSS-certified foster homes or working with CSS. Their stories can be found in an amicus brief submitted to the Third Circuit Court of Appeals.  They are urging the court to keep CSS' century-old foster-care program operating.

Wayne credits Meme and CSS for his success in life.  While an Our Lady of Victory Catholic School sixth grader, Wayne represented the school at World Youth Day in Germany in 2005 — an honor Meme talks about to this day.  After graduating from middle school, Wayne went on to study at Mercy Career and Technical School, a private, Catholic vocational training high school.   After this, Wayne accepted a job as an HVAC technician at the same company he has worked at the past 12 years.  "I look at my life and the lives of my other siblings who did not go to foster care," he says.  "I think that my life is better because of what foster care gave me."

>> READ MORE: My faith led me to foster more than 40 kids; Philly is wrong to cut ties with Catholic foster agencies. | Opinion

What will happen if CSS is forced to close its doors?  "Everything I went through that involved them gave me so much hope," Wayne says.  "All the workers we had that helped us were great.  They bring a positive respect to upcoming foster children that need their help.  And mothers who want to foster will lose a great agency."

Fulton opened her home to other foster children over her years as a CSS-certified foster mother.  Wayne remembers planting a tree whenever a new foster child came to live with them.  "She said that the tree represented new growth, new opportunities," says Wayne.  "Now when I visit Meme's home, I see those trees.  I think about my life – still growing, still thriving."

CSS-supported foster care answered Brittany's and Wayne's prayers more than 25 years go, but the need for foster-care homes is even greater today. The City of Philadelphia's gratuitous intolerance is keeping CSS and its foster-care parents from continuing to answer the prayers of many little children in need. The Third Circuit Court of Appeals has an opportunity to right this wrong and help more trees – and children – thrive in Philadelphia.

Andrea Picciotti-Bayer is legal advisor for the Catholic Association Foundation.