Catholic Social Services, claiming religious discrimination, files appeal in foster care case

DHS Commissioner Cynthia Figueroa enters Federal Court as Catholic Social Services argues its case in why the city's suspension of a foster care contract amounts to religious discrimination. The city froze the contract after learning of a policy that would not allow the organization to work with LGBTQ foster parents, June 21, 2018.

Catholic Social Services on Monday appealed a federal District Court ruling that last week sided with the City of Philadelphia in a foster-care case that could have ripple effects across the country.

The foster agency, along with several foster families, appealed the ruling that allows the city to require its foster agencies to adhere to its nondiscrimination policies. In March, the city suspended its foster-care contract with CSS after it was made aware the agency wouldn’t place children with same-sex couples.

Last week, U.S. District Judge Petrese B. Tucker denied the foster agency’s request for a temporary restraining order that would allow it to resume its work for the city. The group says it will be forced to shutter its foster-care program if its contract isn’t restored and has asked in its filing that the Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit issue an order by Aug. 2.

In its filing, the agency argues the city’s policy prohibits it from placing children in two dozen available homes because it disagrees with the agency’s religious beliefs related to same-sex marriage. Attorneys for CSS wrote the city has engaged in “unabashed religious targeting” and said it can’t demand religious groups “parrot the city’s views as a precondition to serving foster children.”

In March, the Inquirer and Daily News published a report indicating CSS and another foster-care agency had policies prohibiting staff from placing kids in households with same-sex couples. That other agency, Bethany Christian Services, changed its policy, while CSS sued the city.

Lori Windham, senior counsel at Becket, which is representing the agency, said the new policy has forced CSS to move two employees to other offices within the archdiocese. She said layoffs could come “within weeks” and the program could be folded in months (though other contracts the group has with the city, such as with its Office of Homeless Services and the Department of Public Health, are unaffected).

“They’re hoping the court will protect them before they have to start winding down their program,” Windham said.

Tucker wrote in a decision last week that the city’s Department of Human Services had a right to ensure “that the pool of foster parents and resource caregivers is as diverse and broad as the children in need of foster parents.” City officials say CSS’s refusal to place foster children in same-sex households violates the Fair Practices Ordinance that prohibits city contractors from discriminating on the basis of sexual orientation.

In a statement responding to the appeal, the city reaffirmed its stance that CSS, in its refusal to place children with same-sex couples, is violating nondiscrimination policies.

“We are committed to ensuring that government services are provided in an accessible way to all Philadelphians and we must ensure that the foster care services CSS provides are done so in a non-discriminatory way according the Fair Practices Ordinance and our contracts,” city spokesperson Deana Gamble said.

The ACLU of Pennsylvania has signaled its support for the city and has said the case could have implications for similar ones pending in Michigan and Texas.

DHS has 6,000 children in its custody, and the city works with 29 foster-care agencies. Last year, CSS placed 266 children.