Philadelphia Catholic agency can once again help make foster care placements, after settlement with city

Fulton Sharonell Fulton, one of the plaintiffs in Fulton v. Philadelphia who has fostered more than 40 children through Catholic Social Services/ Becket

Catholic Social Services of the Archdiocese of Philadelphia is once again helping make foster care placements, following a legal settlement with the city to cap a years-long court battle.

The Supreme Court in June ruled in favor of Catholic Social Services in its lawsuit against the city, in the major religious freedom case of Fulton v. City of Philadelphia. The agency and two foster moms working with it had alleged that the city violated religious freedom when, in 2018, it stopped contracting with the agency due to its religious stance on marriage. The city handles all foster care placements and contracts with various agencies to make referrals; Catholic Social Services does not refer foster children for same-sex or unmarried couples.

Following the ruling, Catholic Social Services reached a settlement with the city, and could once again help make placements of foster children on Friday, Sept. 24.

“Up until 2018, this had been a really positive relationship. Our goal is for that to be a positive relationship again,” said Lori Windham, senior counsel at The Becket Fund for Religious Liberty, in an interview with CNA. Windham which represented Catholic Social Services and the two foster moms in the Fulton case.

While the details of the settlement were not released publicly, a federal district court order on Friday recognized the Catholic ministry’s victory in the case.

The court issued a permanent injunction, prohibiting the city from refusing to contract with Catholic Social Services on foster care services because of the ministry’s religious-based refusal to place children with same-sex or unmarried couples.

The city of Philadelphia agreed not to exclude the ministry from participating in foster care placements, and will not exclude foster parents who work with Catholic Social Services.

Referring to other cases around the country where religious adoption and foster care agencies face state and local mandates to work with same-sex couples against their religious beliefs, Windham said the settlement could serve as a blueprint for how to resolve those cases.

“I think that this should be a model for those other situations, because it shows how you can resolve those cases and allow Catholic charities to continue serving children,” she said of the settlement.

The Supreme Court in June unanimously decided in favor of Catholic Social Services in the Fulton case, with the majority opinion stating that the city’s refusal to contract “violates the Free Exercise Clause of the First Amendment.”

Justice Samuel Alito, in his concurrence, warned that the majority opinion was too narrowly written and that the city could simply adjust its policy and still exclude Catholic Social Services from foster care placements in accord with the opinion.

However, according to Becket, Friday’s court ruling was definitive in that it was a permanent injunction, with a settlement entered into willingly by the city.

Until 2018, Catholic Social Services had worked in the city for over 100 years making foster care placements. The ministry would help find the best home for children and match them with foster parents.

In March 2018, the city announced it would stop referring foster children to agencies such as Catholic Social Services who would not match children with same-sex couples. At that point, lawyers for Catholic Social Services later argued, no same-sex couple had sought its certification to accept foster children.

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