Intolerance in Philadelphia

The City of Philadelphia plays a central role in the story of American freedom. It was the location of the writing of both the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution, and the colony of Pennsylvania was notable for its religious toleration. It’s too bad that the current city government is now ignoring that legacy by violating the religious liberty of the Catholic Church.

The basic facts are very simple. There is a crisis in the foster care system in the City of Philadelphia. You recall that foster care serves some of the most vulnerable children in our society — victims of abuse or neglect, frequently with very serious medical and psychological challenges. There are approximately 6,000 children in Philadelphia’s foster care system, awaiting placement in a foster home. The City issued a call for new foster families, but then banned one of the oldest and most successful agencies, Catholic Social Services, from placing any children into foster homes.

The reason? The City of Philadelphia disapproves of the Catholic Church’s belief and teaching that the best place for a child to be raised is in a home with a married mother and father, and thus the refusal of Catholic agencies to place foster children with same-sex couples.

There are some important things to note. CCS does not discriminate against any child based on their sexual orientation. CCS will refer same-sex couples to one of the 26 other agencies that place children in foster homes. There are foster families, certified through CCS, who are ready and able to foster right now, but the City won’t allow the placement. Nobody has ever filed a complaint against CCS based on its religious mission, and its religious beliefs have never prevented a child from being placed in a home. And there is a history of bias against the Church — powerful city officials, including the mayor, have made numerous bitterly critical statements against the Church and the Archbishop of Philadelphia because of our religious beliefs about marriage and human sexuality.

The Church’s teaching on this is quite clear:

Homosexual unions are also totally lacking in the conjugal dimension, which represents the human and ordered form of sexuality… As experience has shown, the absence of sexual complementarity in these unions creates obstacles in the normal development of children who would be placed in the care of such persons. They would be deprived of the experience of either fatherhood or motherhood… This is gravely immoral and in open contradiction to the principle, recognized also in the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child, that the best interests of the child, as the weaker and more vulnerable party, are to be the paramount consideration in every case. (Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, Considerations Regarding Proposals to Give Legal Recognition to Unions Between Homosexual Persons, 7)

And the duty of Catholic organizations not to cooperate with this is also quite clear:

In those situations where homosexual unions have been legally recognized or have been given the legal status and rights belonging to marriage, clear and emphatic opposition is a duty. One must refrain from any kind of formal cooperation in the enactment or application of such gravely unjust laws and, as far as possible, from material cooperation on the level of their application. In this area, everyone can exercise the right to conscientious objection. (5)

Becket, the stalwart defenders of religious liberty, has filed suit against the City of Philadelphia. This should be a fairly easy case, considering that just last year the Supreme Court unanimously ruled that the government cannot deny generally-available public benefits to a religious organization purely because of their religious beliefs. In that case, the Court said plainly, “[A] law targeting religious beliefs as such is never permissible.” This is not a new doctrine. Fifty years ago, the Court said “The State may not adopt programs or practices . . . which ‘aid or oppose’ any religion. . . . This prohibition is absolute.” Apparently these decisions were not read by the government of the City of Philadelphia.

Yet the usual voices from the forces of intolerance are being heard, with all the usual false accusations and incorrect statements of fact, law and principle. Some examples:

  • “This is just bare hatred of gay couples.”
This is a strange argument, since the whole purpose of the foster care system is to consider the best interests of the child, not the interests or desires of prospective foster parents. The Church’s position is based on love of the child, and concern for the best way to assure their welfare and development.
  • “If they don’t want to follow the government’s rules, they should get out of the foster care business.”
As we noted above, there is such a thing as the First Amendment, which guarantees both the free exercise of religion and protection from the establishment of religion. This means that the government cannot reward or penalize a church — no playing favorites based on preferred doctrines. By directly penalizing the Catholic Church for our religious beliefs, the City has, in effect, established a definition of acceptable religious beliefs — and those that they will not tolerate. That’s totally out of bounds under the First Amendment.
  • “The agency isn’t being asked to do anything other than implement the rules set down by the government.”
Private organizations aren’t mindless puppets of the state. A foster care agency has to evaluate individual cases for the suitability of placement of individual children into individual homes. This takes discretion and adherence to particular principles, including the teachings of the Church mentioned above on the best interests of children. If the agency feels it cannot do that, it will refer the children and parents to another agency. Plus, we again have to remember the existence of the First Amendment, which says that churches are not mere instruments of the state. They are independent, and their internal affairs cannot be interfered with by the government.
  • “They’d rather the children suffer in orphanages than allow gay couples to foster them.”
No child is living in an orphanage, a la Oliver Twist, and there are 26 other agencies that are perfectly free to certify gay couples and place children with them. Since there are so many alternatives, why must the City insist on ideological submission by CCS?
  • “Haven’t Christian adoption agencies shut down just to prevent gay people from adopting?”
Catholic adoption agencies have been forced out of business in a number of places (Washington, Boston, San Francisco, Illinois) — state agencies denied them licenses because they disapproved of Catholic beliefs. What Philadelphia is doing is another example of the same kind of intolerance. Catholic Charities wants to conduct its affairs in keeping with our faith, while other agencies can operate according to their principles and place children with same-sex couples.
  • “Isn’t this the same as refusing to place kids in interracial homes?”
Race is completely different from sexual orientation — it has nothing whatsoever to do with the nature and structure of a family and the right of a child to have a mother and father to raise them. It’s interesting that in some states, like New York, agencies are required to give preference to placing children with adoptive parents of the same religion. Some people have argued that race and ethnicity  should also be considered. If it’s okay to consider those factors, why can’t Catholic agencies consider a religion-based factor that we consider important for the well-being of a child?
  • This is just another example of the Church trying to impose their morality on others.
Who’s using political and financial power to push forward an agenda? Who’s doing that based on a moral and political judgment about human sexuality and marriage? Answer — it’s the City of Philadelphia that’s using its political power to impose its morality. They’re the ones who have decided that CCS is morally unfit to place foster children. The Church is just asking to be left alone to operate our foster care agency according to our religious beliefs, which puts a burden on absolutely nobody.

The point here isn’t whether people think that children should be placed in foster homes with same-sex couples. It also isn’t whether people agree with the Church on this issue or not — in fact, I imagine that the vast majority of Americans don’t agree. The point here is that an intolerant government is using its political power to enforce ideological conformity upon a religious organization that dares to dissent from current sexual orthodoxy. All Americans, regardless of what they think about the underlying issues, should be appalled by this abuse of power.

It’s an interesting irony that this is happening in Philadelphia. The man who wrote the Declaration of Independence in that city later became President. While serving in that office, he received a letter from some Catholic nuns in New Orleans who were worried that they would lose title to their property after the United States bought the Louisiana Purchase territory. The letter President Thomas Jefferson wrote to them is worth quoting in full:

I have received, holy sisters, the letter you have written me wherein you express anxiety for the property vested in your institution by the former governments of Louisiana. The principles of the constitution and government of the United States are a sure guarantee to you that it will be preserved to you sacred and inviolate, and that your institution will be permitted to govern itself according to its own voluntary rules, without interference from the civil authority. Whatever diversity of shade may appear in the religious opinions of our fellow citizens, the charitable objects of your institution cannot be indifferent to any; and its furtherance of the wholesome purposes of society, by training up its younger members in the way they should go, cannot fail to ensure it the patronage of the government it is under. Be assured it will meet all the protection which my office can give it.

How far we have come from those days, when the “inalienable right” of freedom of religion was assured by such generous and liberal words – and by a man who was not a religious believer himself. Too bad that the city government of Philadelphia hasn’t learned that lesson.

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