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    Don’t Harm People in the Name of Religion

    By Stuart Gaffney and John Lewis–

    “Don’t Kill Innocent People in the Name of Religion.” So read a wall mural in Kolkata, India, which we happened upon when we were backpacking in South Asia years ago. The artist’s plea stayed with us and came to mind again recently as the U.S. Supreme Court heard oral argument in Fulton v. City of Philadelphia, a case that could potentially have devastating consequences for LGBTIQ people—all in the name of religion.

    In Fulton, Catholic Social Services (CSS) under the guise of “religious freedom” is asking the Supreme Court to force the city of Philadelphia to contract with it to provide foster care placement services even though CSS refuses to place children with loving, committed same-sex couples in flagrant violation of the city’s anti-discrimination laws.

    As background, CSS, along with over 20 other private organizations, has provided foster care services for years for the city of Philadelphia per contracts with the city’s Department of Human Services (DHS). These services include, among other things, recruiting and certifying foster parents for children. For years, CSS and the other organizations have entered into contracts with DHS, agreeing as a condition of receiving taxpayer money to abide by the city’s nondiscrimination laws.

    But in 2018, CSS made clear to DHS that it would not certify same-sex couples as foster parents in blatant violation of its contract with DHS and city law, claiming that doing so contravened their religious views. Accordingly, DHS suspended new placements through CSS, while maintaining contracts with CSS for all the other foster care services it provided. CSS stands alone among Philadelphia foster service providers, both religious and not, in their refusal to certify same-sex couples and wants the Supreme Court to compel DHS to enter into discriminatory arrangements with it.

    Back in 2018, then Philadelphia Human Services Commissioner Cynthia Figueroa invited CSS leaders to meet with her in an attempt “to find a mutually agreeable resolution.” Both then and now, DHS wants Catholic Social Services to be able to continue providing foster care placement services for Philadelphia. In that meeting, Figueroa, herself a Catholic, appealed to CSS that “it would be great if we followed the teachings of Pope Francis.” She was likely thinking of Francis’ opining five years before: “If someone is gay and is searching for the Lord and has a good will, then who am I to judge him?”

    Figueroa’s words proved prescient when, just two weeks ago, the documentary Francesco, made with Vatican approval, revealed that Pope Francis himself supported civil unions for same-sex couples. The film shows the Pope saying that gay people “have a right to a family. Nobody should be thrown out of the family or made miserable over this. What we have to create is a civil union law, for they have the right to be legally covered.”

    The New Yorker describes how the documentary explores the lives of people personally affected by Pope Francis, including “Andrea Rubera, a gay man who lives in Rome with his partner and their three adopted children.” After Rubera attended Mass at the papal residence, he gave the Pope a letter explaining that he and his partner wanted “to raise the children as Catholics.” Francis then called Rubera and “offered encouragement,” while cautioning him that not everyone in his parish “will share your choice of having a family like that.”

    We are, of course, disappointed that Pope Francis has not called for full marriage equality and has not fully embraced LGBTIQ people in the Catholic Church. But CSS should follow the lead of the Pope and heed his words supporting gay parents, family, and legal rights for same-sex couples.

    Moreover, the U.S. Supreme Court should rule in accord with Francis’ reasoning, not because he is the Pope, but because it expresses the meaning and importance of the separation of religion and state embodied by the First Amendment. Regardless of what private Catholic religious doctrine may be, Francis recognizes secular legal protections for same-sex couples as separate.

    If the Supreme Court follows its own precedent, it will affirm the separation of religion and state. In Masterpiece Cakeshop, the Court opinion joined by conservative Justices Roberts, Alito, and Gorsuch, explicitly cautioned against service providers “who object to gay marriages for moral and religious reasons” effectively being “allowed to put up signs saying ‘no goods or services will be sold if they will be used for gay marriages.’” The Court warned such actions “would impose a serious stigma on gay persons.”

    That is exactly what would happen if the Court forces the city of Philadelphia to use taxpayer money to contract with Catholic Social Services as it openly discriminates against same-sex couples. Not only are LGBTIQ parents demeaned by not being able to become foster parents through CSS, but also LGBTIQ kids in foster care, desperately in need of caring parents, lose out and are treated as second-class children. All LGBTIQ Philadelphians face the indignity of their tax dollars going to an organization that openly discriminates against them.

    The Court’s decision in Fulton may reveal for the first time how its new five-person conservative Catholic majority responds to what should be a straightforward application of the separation of religion and state. If the majority adopts an unwise ideological point of view, the implications for LGBTIQ people, other minorities, and women could be far-reaching, not just in foster care but also in such critical matters as health care, public accommodation, education, and public services. Our lives and well-being could be on the line. We urge the Supreme Court: Don’t Harm People in the Name of Religion.

    Stuart Gaffney and John Lewis, together for over three decades, were plaintiffs in the California case for equal marriage rights decided by the California Supreme Court in 2008. Their leadership in the grassroots organization Marriage Equality USA contributed in 2015 to making same-sex marriage legal nationwide.

    Published on November 5, 2020