Catholic agency seeks ongoing foster referrals during appeal

Catholic Social Services this week asked the Third Circuit Court of Appeals to issue an emergency order for the city to resume referring foster-care children to CSS, even though CSS refuses to license same-sex couples as foster parents.

In a 42-page document filed July 16, CSS claimed its foster-care program is in danger of closing if the appeals court doesn’t issue the order. The agency also alleged that the city is violating its free-speech and religious-freedom rights.

On July 13, U.S. District Judge Petrese B. Tucker declined CSS’ previous request to issue an injunction that would have required the city to resume foster-child referrals to the agency. The city stopped referring foster children to CSS in March after learning it won’t license same-sex couples as foster parents.

In her 64-page opinion, Tucker noted that the city has a right to enforce its Fair Practices Ordinance, which forbids anti-LGBT bias in the provision of city services. The judge also held that the city isn’t violating CSS’ constitutional rights.

CSS initially asked Tucker to issue an emergency order for the resumption of foster-child referrals while the appeal is pending. But when Tucker didn’t immediately do so, CSS filed the 42-page request for the emergency order.

As of presstime, the Third Circuit hadn’t ruled on CSS’ request and city attorneys hadn’t replied to it. In prior court papers, city attorneys emphasized the need for the city’s foster-care system to operate in a bias-free manner.

In a statement July 17, a city spokesperson said, “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 to the Fair Practices Ordinance and our contract.”

The controversy involving CSS and another foster-care provider, Bethany Christian Services, came to the public’s attention in March, after the Philadelphia Inquirer reported that Bethany turned away a lesbian couple who wanted to be foster parents. The news coverage prompted an investigation by city officials, resulting in a freeze on foster-care child referrals to Bethany and CSS.

The city resumed referring foster-care children to Bethany last month, after that agency adopted an antibias policy that putatively covers the LGBT community. But some LGBT advocates say Bethany’s policy isn’t adequate because it doesn’t specify the categories that are protected, including “sexual orientation,” “gender identity,” “marital status” and “religion.”

CSS currently provides foster-care services for about 100 children in city custody, but said it will have to phase out the program within the next several months unless foster-child referrals are resumed.

The city has multiple contracts with CSS to provide a variety of services for children and adults apart from foster care. On July 5, CSS filed a state Right-to-Know Law request for the total amount of city funds CSS received from the city between July 2017 and June 2018.  As of presstime, the request was pending.

According to court testimony, CSS also won’t license unmarried opposite-sex couples as foster parents, even though the city’s Fair Practices Ordinances also bans discrimination based on marital status.

This week, Margaret A. Downey, president of the Freethought Society, reiterated her request that city officials suspend all city funding to CSS until the agency adopts a comprehensive antibias policy that specifically covers the LGBT and nontheist communities. “The bottom line is that we don’t want any tax dollars going to organizations that discriminate,” Downey told PGN.

Kenneth A. Gavin, a spokesperson for the Archdiocese of Philadelphia, had no comment on whether CSS would adopt a comprehensive antibias policy.
Stephanie Haynes, executive director of Philadelphia Family Pride, lauded Tucker’s July 13 opinion.

“Judge Tucker’s ruling emphasizes the importance of recruiting as diverse a group of foster parents as the children that will be cared for in the foster-care system,” Haynes said in a July 16 email. “This is a heartening reminder of the importance of putting the children and their needs front and center while protecting same-sex couples from discrimination.”

Justin F. Robinette, a local civil-rights attorney, also praised Tucker’s opinion.

“Judge Tucker issued a very LGBT-friendly ruling,” Robinette said. “Her ruling stands out in a good way for LGBT people despite a hostile presidential administration and recent court cases that have been more sympathetic to claims [by alleged discriminators] of religious freedom.”

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Tim Cwiek has been writing for PGN since the 1970s. He holds a bachelor's degree in history from West Chester State University. In 2013, he received a Sigma Delta Chi Investigative Reporting Award from the Society of Professional Journalists for his reporting on the Nizah Morris case. Cwiek was the first reporter for an LGBT media outlet to win an award from that national organization. He's also received awards from the National Lesbian and Gay Journalists Association, the National Newspaper Association, and the Keystone Press.