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Fulton v. City of Philadelphia

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Lambda Legal filed friend-of-the-court briefs in the Third Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals and again in the U.S. Supreme Court in a lawsuit over whether government can enforce nondiscrimination laws when contracting with faith-based providers to screen potential foster parents for children in state care. Our briefs, filed on behalf of organizations serving LGBTQ youth, highlight the harm to LGBTQ youth of allowing faith-based child-placing agencies to use religious criteria to reject same-sex couples who wish to serve as foster parents.

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In March of 2018, the City of Philadelphia ("the City") learned that Catholic Social Services (“CSS”), a faith-based child-placing agency contracted with the City of Philadelphia, would not certify same-sex couples as foster parents because of their religious beliefs, in violation of both CSS’s contract to provide foster care services and the City’s Fair Practice Ordinance. 

The City sent CSS a letter indicating that they would no longer make referrals to religious organizations that discriminated against LGBTQ foster parents. CSS did not agree to comply and the City stopped intake of new placements of children into CSS’s care.

CSS sued the City, together with Sharonell Fulton and another foster parent who works with CSS, requesting that the court order the City to resume referrals to CSS. On July 13, 2018, the federal district court denied CSS's motion, rejecting the argument that faith-based child welfare agencies have a constitutional right to discriminate. CSS appealed this ruling to the Third Circuit Court of Appeals.

Lambda Legal filed a brief in the Third Circuit to show how allowing CSS to discriminate against LGBTQ people would send a government-endorsed stigmatic message to LGBTQ youth that they are not worthy to be parents or have a right to equal treatment in the provision of government services. Requiring nondiscrimination in foster care system is consistent with and, in fact, mandated by the City's legal obligation to ensure the wellbeing of LGBTQ youth in the child welfare system.

The Third Circuit Court ruled on April 22, 2019 that the City is entitled to enforce its nondiscrimination rules, and that the Constitution does not grant faith-based agencies a license to discriminate when performing a public function with public funds. CSS then sought and was granted U.S. Supreme Court review.

The parties and many friends of the court filed briefs in the Supreme Court in the late spring and through the summer of 2020.  In August 2020, Lambda Legal filed an expanded friend-of-the-court brief on behalf of 28 organizations serving LGBTQ youth nationwide. 

The Supreme Court held oral argument in the case on November 4, 2020.