• U.S.
  • Supreme Court

The Most Powerful Court in the U.S. Is About to Decide the Fate of the Most Vulnerable Children

9 minute read

When child custody cases come before family courts, judges endeavor to base their rulings on the best interests of the child. Overall, the court is less interested in which parent might have the most right to the children than in how best to help the children thrive. The Supreme Court might now be walking a very similar line. It is on the verge of deciding a landmark case that could have a profound impact on the more than 400,000 vulnerable children who find themselves in the U.S. foster care system. Its ruling could also have major implications for LGBTQ rights, religious liberty and nondiscrimination laws across America.

The case, Fulton v. City of Philadelphia, was sparked when the city said it would no longer contract with a faith-based agency, Catholic Social Services (CSS), to provide foster services after a 2018 Philadelphia Inquirer article revealed that it would not certify same-sex couples to be foster parents. (CSS also does not certify unmarried couples.) In response, two foster mothers—Sharonell Fulton and Toni Simms-Busch—and the CSS sued the city, arguing that severing the contract violated their religious freedom. After losing in two lower courts, they petitioned the Supreme Court, which first agreed to hear the case in February 2020.

The landmark 1990 court ruling on Employment Division v. Smith—written by conservative Justice Antonin Scalia—said Americans cannot have exemptions to laws on religious grounds as long as those laws are neutral and generally applicable to everybody. Anti-discrimination laws have long been thought of as meeting that standard, says NeJamie. But the Fulton plaintiffs are arguing that the city’s anti-discrimination law is neither neutral nor equally applicable, and are asking the court to re-examine Smith. Such a reconsideration would send shockwaves through the religious and civil rights communities.

Read more: Black Families Are Outraged About Family Separation Within the U.S. It’s Time to Listen to Them

The question of who gets to be a parent is not something the Supreme Court often weighs in on, but this case is in part about the tricky legal territory in which many states find themselves: Same-sex marriage has been legal nationwide for nearly six years, but many religious organizations still regard it as unacceptable and are therefore unwilling to place children in LGBTQ homes. Some 11 states have introduced workaround local laws that allow faith-based organizations to decline to work with same sex couples, but that leaves those states open to lawsuits from civil liberties groups. Cities and states that do not allow this religious exemption are also left open to being sued, as Philadelphia has been, on religious liberty grounds. Ten states filed an amicus brief asking the court to consider the case.

The decision is made all the more fraught by the overburdened state of the foster care system in the United States, which is tasked with making sure children have a healthy and safe place to live in times of crisis, and regularly fails. When a family is in crisis or a home is deemed unsafe, children are put in the care of the state, who then contracts with an agency to find a temporary home. Often, these children are deeply traumatized. There are never enough foster families for the number of kids who need them—U.S. child-protection authorities get about 4 million calls a year—and some parents have dozens, if not hundreds, of children come through their care over the years. In the wake of the pandemic, the situation has grown even more dire.

It is no small feat to find enough potential foster parents and to give them enough support while a child is in their home. In order to make sure that children are placed in an appropriate environment, prospective foster parents must be certified via a series of interviews, training sessions, background checks and visits by social workers to make sure they are capable of handling a traumatized child. Once agencies have recruited, trained and certified parents, they can place the children sent to them by the local authorities.

When it was discovered that CSS would not certify same-sex parents, the City of Philadelphia simply stopped directing any children to them. CSS has said it will shut down rather than violate its beliefs about marriage. And Fulton and Simms-Busch, the mothers who are plaintiffs, claim it was their Catholic faith that inspired them to be foster mothers. Fulton has fostered 40 children; Simms-Bush was a social worker in the Philadelphia foster care system before fostering and adopting children.

Read more: The Supreme Court Tries to Settle the Religious Liberty Culture War

Both sides have marshaled data that they believe undergirds their case. CSS, represented by the conservative law firm Becket Law, points out that faith-based groups have long been crucial to the foster care system and have deep history and experience in this difficult work. In Massachusetts and Illinois, according to figures provided by Becket, the number of available foster homes dropped by 7,000 in the six years after those states required all agencies to work with same sex couples—and many of the Christian agencies closed. One faith-based group alone is responsible for providing half of all foster homes in Arkansas. A study in the Journal of Sociology and Social Welfare found that parents recruited through church or religious organizations foster 2.6 years longer than other foster parents, and another by the religious group Barna found in 2013 that 3% of practicing Christians fostered a child and 5% had adopted.

But Douglas NeJaime, a professor of law at Yale Law School points to data from UCLA’s Williams Institute (where he was a fellow) that finds same-sex couples also represent a significant portion of the foster community. About 3% of same-sex couples are raising a foster child and more than 21% are raising an adopted child, making them seven times more likely than different-sex couples to be raising an adopted child.

Civil liberties groups point to the high number of foster children who also identify as LBGTQ, and argue that they need supportive homes. “I do think this is a particularly poignant setting in which this case is arising, because adoption and foster care has been so critical to LGBT kids and LGBT parents,” NeJaime says. (Catholic Social Services responds that it has served and will serve all children, regardless of their sexual orientation.)

Read more: How Foster Families Are Stepping Up to House Unaccompanied Children Arriving at the U.S.-Mexico Border

Lori Windham, the lawyer representing CSS, wants to focus the issue quite narrowly: “The question is whether Philadelphia can exclude longtime foster moms and the religious agency they partner with because of their religious beliefs,” she says, and points to the 200-year history of the Catholic Church working in Philadelphia with children who had lost parents. “We’re talking about trying to take away an important support for foster parents and their children.”

Asked why CSS should be able to ignore laws that apply to everyone else, Windham says that such regulations are routinely ignored in other circumstances. “The city acknowledges that it considers factors like race and disability when it’s making foster care placements, something that’s prohibited by the law.”

But the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), which represents social service organizations that joined the case in support of the city, says decisions about where to place a child are a totally separate part of the process from the initial recruiting and certifying of prospective parent—and that the city does not consider race or disability when finding and screening families.

“Essentially [CSS is] claiming that there is a right to opt out of non-discrimination requirements that conflict with your religious beliefs,” says Leslie Cooper, the deputy director of the ACLU’s LGBTQ & HIV Project. “So the implications, if that argument is accepted, are vast, because it would upend civil rights protections as we know them.”

Experts opined that the court, which now has six conservative justices, seemed to be leaning towards granting the plaintiff’s side during oral arguments on Nov. 4, 2020, especially given the numerous rulings released this term striking down COVID-19 restrictions in the name of religious liberty. But it’s anyone’s guess how broadly they might rule. At minimum, a decision in CSS’s favor could have huge implications for LGBTQ couples’ ability to foster and adopt children, especially in more rural parts of the country that are only served by faith-based agencies. Cooper, of the ACLU, argues it could allow faith-based agencies to decline to certify people of different religions.

Read more: 9 Landmark Supreme Court Cases That Have Shaped LGBTQ Rights in America

In the extreme, a broad ruling that favors CSS could allow other private entities that provide taxpayer-funded government services—like food banks or homeless shelters—to also deny services on religious grounds, says Adam Winkler, a professor at the University of California, Los Angeles School of Law. That could mean turning away LGBTQ people, but also those of other faiths, or even of other races, he says. (Windham argues that CSS would redirect same-sex couples them to another of the 30 foster agencies in the Philadelphia area, but has never been approached by any.)

According to an old biblical story, when two mothers came to King Solomon each claiming that a baby was theirs, he ordered that the baby should be cut in half and each mother given a piece. (The real mother, of course, was the one who said she’d rather the other woman got the baby.) The justices face a similar issue. If they rule in favor of the Catholic foster mothers and CSS, they risk impinging on the rights of LGBTQ Americans—and possibly others—not just among foster agencies, but in any government-sponsored program. If they rule in favor of the City of Philadelphia and more faith-based agencies choose to shut down, they risk losing foster homes.

A third way out of the conundrum has been offered by Bethany Christian Services, one of the largest foster care agencies in the U.S. Bethany Christian Services was initially a party to the lawsuit with CSS, but in March of 2021 reversed its position and announced it would start to work with same-sex couples who wished to foster and eventually adopt children. The blowback from the Christian community was fierce, but Chris Palusky, CEO of Bethany, framed the decision as a Christian duty. “We faced a choice: continue caring for hurting children who need a safe family, or close our foster care program completely because we disagree with government requirements,” he wrote in an essay defending the agency’s actions. “Bethany will not walk away from children who need us.”

More Must-Reads From TIME

Write to Madeleine Carlisle at madeleine.carlisle@time.com