Fulton v. City of Philadelphia

AT ISSUE

When faith-based groups voluntarily partner with the government to run a government-funded program, they must work within the government’s own guidelines to ensure everyone is being served.

BJC’S POSITION

Requiring government contractors to adhere to nondiscrimination policies when performing a government function does not burden religion – instead, it protects religious freedom.

We filed a friend-of-the-court brief in the case of Fulton v. Philadelphia because nondiscrimination policies protect religious freedom for everyone.  This case involves a challenge to Philadelphia’s rules for agencies that certify foster parents — the city says agencies must adhere to its nondiscrimination law in this government-funded service. That means they can’t reject prospective foster parents based on religion, sexual orientation and other protected categories.

“By requiring that government-funded foster care agencies consider all qualified individuals, the city is ensuring that all communities — including religious communities — are treated with equality and dignity,” said BJC General Counsel Holly Hollman.

“Denying certification of an otherwise qualified foster parent based on something like religion or sexual orientation prevents children from getting essential care.”

Faith-based groups often feel called to help others, including voluntarily partnering with the government to serve those in need.  Following the government’s rules to administer certain government-funded programs does not mean the faith-based organization is giving up its right to speak about core beliefs in other contexts.

“This policy also protects the viability of government partnerships with religious organizations that serve people in need,” Hollman said. “The government has an obligation to ensure that children who need foster care can be placed in safe homes.”

STATUS

The U.S. Supreme Court will hear oral arguments in Fulton v. Philadelphia on November 4, 2020. A decision is expected in the case by June 2021.

From the Brief

This is not a case about generally applicable laws regulating the general public and in so doing incidentally burdening religious exercise.  Rather, it concerns voluntary contracting with a government to perform a public function on its behalf.”

“Religious institutions participating in government-administered social programs like foster care services perform an immensely valuable function.  Indeed, the reality of faith-based groups playing such a role in public life is a great strength of our pluralistic society.  It is precisely because these services are so important that an entity making a voluntary choice to participate in such a public program is not entitled to displace the government’s nondiscrimination laws and policies in administration of the government’s own program.”

“Hard cases can arise when a government’s important interests must be balanced against substantial burdens on religious exercise.  This is not such a case.  Here, the City’s nondiscrimination policy reflects not only a valid and compelling interest, but one that advances religious liberty, rather than infringes upon it.  Nondiscrimination laws like the Fair Practices Ordinance offer critical protection to religious liberty in a pluralistic society, as do nondiscrimination provisions included in government contracts.”

“A prospective foster parent that is rejected for being Baptist, or for being in a same-sex marriage, or another protected characteristic, is likewise a victim of discrimination, whether or not some other agency is willing to consider them.”

“The recipient of the government funding therefore does not give up their right to speak on contrary views—or, as here, to maintain and exercise their religious views—only the right to speak or act on those views through the particular project funded by the government.”

Featured
Resources

BJC brief (PDF)
Joined by the Presiding Bishop of the Episcopal Church, the General Synod of the United Church of Christ and the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America

BJC news release
Issued August 21, 2020

BJC: Applying nonsidscrimination laws to contracting faith-based organizations protects religious liberty
BJC Latest News post by Don Byrd