As a bisexual individual raised in a conservative Christian religion, I’m no stranger to the way religion are used to justify homophobia.
Before I turned 18, I internalized a narrative telling me I was disgusting, impure and unholy for something I couldn’t change.
Since then, I’ve embraced my identity while retaining a deep respect for others’ religious beliefs. But every time I see religion used as a means to justify homophobia, I can’t help but feel so unyieldingly enraged.
When I saw homophobic discrimination by Christian agency take place in my own city, I was heartbroken.
On Feb. 24, the Supreme Court of the United States announced it would hear a legal case between the City of Philadelphia and Catholic Social Services, which provides help to children and special needs population, which focuses on the placement of foster children with same-sex couples, the Philadelphia Inquirer reported.
The case, Fulton v. City of Philadelphia, is a monumental moment for the future of LGBTQ equality, with the potential to determine the legality of religion-backed, anti-LGBTQ discrimination in the future.
In 2018, two Philadelphia Christian foster care agencies, Bethany Christian Services and CSS, refused to place foster children with same-sex couples, the Inquirer reported that year.
“I feel like CSS is looking at same-sex partnership as something that’s immoral, something that’s wrong, when in reality, because of that mindset, we’re depriving youth of things they need,” said Corem Coreano, youth coordinator for Galaei, a queer latinx social justice organization in Philadelphia. “We’re creating more housing insecurity, we’re creating more stigma around youth trying to explore their identity or feeling like they’re not accepted.”
Both agencies had contracts with the City of Philadelphia for decades.
Philadelphia’s Department of Human Services enacts a fair practices ordinance in all city contracts, which prohibits discrimination based on sexual orientation for all contracted organizations, the Inquirer further reported.
“The City of Philadelphia is proud of our longstanding commitment to supporting freedom of religion and preserving equal access to services for all people,” wrote Marcel Pratt, the city solicitor, in a Feb. 24 press release. “Abiding by that commitment is central to any contract that the city enters into.”
Both agencies were violating this ordinance, and at the time, DHS was unaware of these practices. While Bethany agreed to change its policy, CSS never did.
That year, the city suspended its contract with CSS, and the agency promptly sued.
“Unfortunately, CSS refused to consider qualified same-sex couples to become foster parents – even when these couples would be a safe, loving family for the child,” Pratt said. “In doing so, CSS defied the City’s nondiscrimination policy, as reflected in its original contract and reaffirmed in the most recent contract offered to all foster care providers.”
In July 2018, a federal judge ruled that the City of Philadelphia did not violate CSS’s religious liberties by suspending their contract, the Inquirer reported.
Unsatisfied, CSS appealed the case, and lost again to the City of Philadelphia when the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 3rd Circuit made the same ruling in April 2019, the Inquirer further reported.
The Supreme Court will hear a second appeal by CSS in the fall. With a 5-4 conservative majority on the Supreme Court, this case has the potential to affect LGBTQ in the future through judicial precedent.
REINFORCING A FALSE NARRATIVE
Asking how LGBTQ rights could affect children isn’t anything new — that tired narrative has been a conservative talking point for decades.
“Using children in this way is nothing new,” said Brad Windhauser, a gender, sexuality and women’s studies professor, whose research focuses on LGBTQ studies. “When it was illegal for people of different races to get married, one of the arguments used was, ‘Think of the children that they’ll have.’ So even that argument’s nothing new, and it sort of plays on these emotional appeals and these sorts of fears.”
When California lawmakers tried to ban same-sex marriage through Proposition 8 in 2008, the bill’s advertising used this same rhetoric by asking voters how gay marriage could “confuse” children, Windhauser said.
Children raised by same-sex parents report no difference in their emotional, social or education development compared to their peers raised by heterosexual parents, according to a three-decade-long study by the Medical Journal of Australia. In fact, the majority of studies on the well-being of children raised by gay and lesbian parents find that these children do not fare any worse than their peers, according to the Public Policy Research Portal at Cornell University.
“I think people historically have looked to any and all reasons to support their bigotry, and they’ve done it in a number of different ways,” Windhauser said. “In this particular case, they’re clinging to very outdated stereotypes.”
In Philadelphia, there were 700 children living in group home placements, with 250 that could be living with a family, the Inquirer reported in March 2018. Philadelphia DHS is in need of emergency placements for a number of those children, and put out an urgent call for foster parents in 2018.
“Our nation is in the midst of a foster care crisis,” wrote Ryan Colby, media relations manager for the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty, a nonprofit legal institute representing CSS, in a Feb. 24 press release. “There is a shortage of families and a surplus of at-risk children due in part to the opioid epidemic. Religious agencies like CSS are particularly successful at placing high-risk children (those with disabilities, large sibling groups, and older children) in loving families.”
But by drawing from this narrative, CSS and other conservative groups aren’t helping any children — rather, they’re neglecting them.
The case could affect over 400,000 children living in foster care across the nation, with a severe shortage of foster families available, wrote Leslie Cooper, deputy director of the American Civil Liberties Union LGBT and HIV Project, in an email statement to The Temple News.
“Allowing foster care agencies to exclude qualified families based on religious requirements that have nothing to do with the ability to care for a child such as their sexual orientation or faith would make it even worse,” Cooper further wrote. “We can’t afford to have loving families turned away or deterred by the risk of discrimination.”
When it comes to the placement of foster children in safe and loving families, the needs of those children must come first — not outdated, homophobic ideologies.
“Children deserve to have a fun, happy, safe and loving family, and what CSS is doing is depriving them of that because it’s not what is accepted in their institution,” Coreano said.
Jessica Traxler, a sophomore sociology and geography and urban studies major and a member of the LGBTQ community, lived in foster care for 10 years growing up, moving to seven different houses over that time. She moved around so often because there was never a home accepting of her sexual orientation, Traxler said.
“The foster care overload isn’t just in Philly, it’s all over the world,” Traxler said. “There’s so many places that don’t have foster parents but they have parents that are completely willing to take in kids, and I think starting in Philly, it’s only going to take off, especially in places that are already hesitant to same-sex couples, and we have an overwhelming amount of foster kids.”
If the Supreme Court rules in favor of CSS, they could be giving religious institutions the legal opportunity to circumvent anti-discrimination law while receiving government funding, Buzzfeed News reported.
It’s not the first time that cases surrounding religion and anti-LGBTQ discrimination have reached the Supreme Court.
In 2012, a same-sex couple in Colorado seeking a wedding cake filed a discrimination lawsuit against a bakery that refused to provide service on account of their religious opposition to gay marriage, Vox reported. In June 2018, the Supreme Court ruled in favor of that baker.
But that decision focused on the state government’s hostility toward the baker, with the Supreme Court agreeing that the discrimination was unlawful, which leaves the question of religion and homophobic discrimination largely unanswered at the judicial level.
In October 2019, the Supreme Court began hearing a set of cases determining whether Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which prohibits job discrimination on the basis of one’s identity, includes protections for LGBTQ individuals, The New York Times reported.
The Supreme Court has yet to rule on those cases.
Fulton v. Philadelphia could draw from constitutional protections of religious freedom under the First Amendment to provide an exemption to anti-discrimination law on the basis of religious beliefs, Slate reported. That’s a dangerous precedent to set because it gives religious institutions the legal basis to justify blatant homophobia in a variety of settings — not just in the foster care system.
Such attempts have already been made. In 2015, for example, Sens. Mike Lee (R-Utah) and Ted Cruz (R-Texas) introduced the First Amendment Defense Act to Congress, a bill that would prevent the federal government from punishing individuals and religious institutions that are religiously opposed to same-sex marriage, NPR reported in 2019.
President Donald Trump considered enacting an executive order with the same purpose, but further action was never taken, NPR further reported.
If the Supreme Court decides in favor of CSS, bills like the First Amendment Defense Act and Trump’s executive order could become a reality — federally legalized, state-sanctioned homophobia could become our reality.
“It’s more than a fear of gay couples, it’s a fear of the whole LGBTQ community as a whole,” Traxler said. “I’m currently in a relationship with somebody that’s the opposite gender, so is the fact that I’m bisexual so unknown that it’s fine? And if they find out, what would be those repercussions?”
Religious exemptions to anti-discrimination laws already exist to varying degrees in eight different states, according to the Human Rights Watch, and this case provides the opportunity for that number to rise.
Given that Fulton v. Philadelphia affects our own city, those exemptions could very well come to Pennsylvania. The thought that my closest friends and I could suffer from legal discrimination because of this case’s potential is absolutely terrifying.
But this case isn’t just a local issue anymore — its potential ramifications could affect LGBTQ rights across the country. It’s one of the most important Supreme Court cases of our generation, with our jobs, education and children at stake.
Civil rights are non-negotiable — regardless of religion. The Supreme Court cannot forget that.