Across the United States, children are being denied loving, safe homes because some faith-based child welfare agencies are turning away eligible LGBTQ adoptive and foster parents. Over the past two years, seven states have passed laws that allow taxpayer-funded child welfare programs to refuse to work with LGBTQ prospective parents if they assert a religious reason for the refusal. An attempt to codify the ability to discriminate at the federal level took place this year with a proposed amendment to the must-pass fiscal year 2019 appropriations bill. Although it ultimately was shut down in a final vote, the amendment would have prohibited states from denying federal funding to child welfare services that do not serve LGBTQ clients. It also could have opened the door to further discrimination regarding sexual orientation, gender identity, religion, and marital status.
Discrimination in child welfare agencies has resurfaced recently in the Philadelphia courts. In Fulton v. City of Philadelphia, Catholic Social Services and four of its foster parents have sued the city of Philadelphia for ceasing to refer children to Catholic Social Services’ agencies because the organization would not license same-sex couples to be foster parents. Numerous faith leaders and religious organizations recently submitted a friend-of-the-court brief, arguing that child welfare providers, including those that are faith-based, must comply with nondiscrimination laws and cannot discriminate against LGBTQ individuals. This brief provides clear evidence that LGBTQ equality does not run counter to theological principles; rather, it flows directly from religious values and beliefs.
Religious leaders and organizations from diverse faiths affirm LGBTQ rights
Fourteen organizations, seven of which serve at least 3 million individuals in the United States, along with 34 individual faith leaders from Pennsylvania, New Jersey, and Delaware, filed the brief.* They come from a wide range of religions, including Christianity, Judaism, Islam, Mormonism, Unitarian Universalism, and Quakerism, and state that their diverse faith backgrounds inspire them to treat all people equally. This tenet is core to the three Abrahamic faiths—Christianity, Judaism, and Islam—as well as other faith traditions. The organizations included serve diverse groupings of people of faith, such as umbrella organizations of clergy and LGBTQ-focused religious groups. In the brief, the filers assert that respect for the dignity of LGBTQ individuals is a widely held, mainstream belief of many people of faith, even among those who come from more traditionally conservative religious backgrounds.
Civil nondiscrimination and the protection of religious beliefs are not mutually exclusive
The filers reject the notion that all people of faith and all religions oppose LGBTQ equality, calling it “a false dichotomy.” In addition, they note that while differing views on LGBTQ people and same-sex relationships coexist in the religious community, LGBTQ people should not be subjected to discrimination in public spaces. When it comes to ensuring First Amendment rights, they argue that preventing all forms of discrimination in the public sphere is necessary: “Affirmance in this case will not constitute an attack on religion … Rather, affirmance will recognize that the religious pluralism woven into the fabric of American law, culture, and society requires that all, regardless of faith, are entitled to equal treatment under the law.” Ultimately, they assert that “it is both morally correct and constitutionally permissible” to instruct child welfare agencies to comply with nondiscrimination legal and moral obligations.
Acceptance of LGBTQ individuals is grounded in theology and moral values
The filers are motivated by their theological and moral values to accept LGBTQ individuals. They note that even though “marriage has a spiritual significance to the point of being sacred” for many people of faith, one’s attitudes toward LGBTQ couples should be informed by respect for “the common humanity of all persons.” In other words, they argue that theologically based values on marriage should not permit discrimination in public spaces, including in child welfare services. They propose that their theological and moral beliefs call them to acknowledge the separation of church and state while also acting with respect for all people.
Specifically, the filers note that religious leaders and institutions have balanced theological values on marriage and moral values of equality while still fostering safe, open, and affirming spaces for LGBTQ individuals. For example, they note that LGBTQ people have been appointed to clergy and other leadership positions in many different faiths, that the relationships and children of LGBTQ people have been religiously affirmed, and that blessings and rites have been extended to same-sex unions. The filers suggest that calling for the equal treatment of all individuals can be a form of living out one’s religious and moral beliefs.
In submitting this brief in the Philadelphia case, these religious organizations and individuals have stated clearly that they reject the use of religious liberty as a license to discriminate against LGBTQ individuals. As the misuse of religious exemptions continues to threaten vulnerable communities more broadly—including LGBTQ individuals, people of color, women, and religious minorities—in areas such as health care and public school systems, progressive voices of faith play an important role in articulating how religious beliefs and values call people to recognize the importance of civil nondiscrimination rights.
* The number of organizations refers to the number of umbrella organizations mentioned in the brief, not each individual branch. The estimate of more than 3 million individuals served was calculated based on summing the numbers provided in the brief by 7 of the 14 organizations about how many people they serve. This is a conservative estimate, as the organizations as a whole likely serve even more people. The 34 individual faith leaders were counted from the brief.
Emily London is a research assistant for the Faith and Progressive Policy Initiative at the Center for American Progress.