Like all major American cities, the City of Philadelphia contracts with private non-profit organizations to provide foster care and adoption services to children in need. More than two dozen service organizations help Philadelphia place more than five thousand children in homes throughout the city. But in March 2018, the City of Philadelphia Department of Human Services (DHS) abruptly suspended its relationship with two of those providers, Catholic Social Services (CSS) and Bethany Christian Services (BCS). Pending an investigation into their placement practices, the City may cancel long-standing contracts with both non-profits. The reason? Neither CSS nor BCS places children with same-sex couples.
The contract suspensions are sudden and, in one sense, surprising. Philadelphia DHS has contracted with the two providers since the late 1990s, and both are well known for their commitments to conservative Christian values and practices. According to the Archdiocese of Philadelphia, CSS’s position regarding same-sex couple referrals was “well-established and long known” at DHS. Moreover, the city is facing a foster care crisis. Philadelphia already struggles with a rate of children in foster care two-and-a-half times the state average. Just two weeks prior to the contract suspensions, DHS had initiated its first major foster-family recruitment drive in a decade, putting out an urgent call for three hundred new foster parents. It enlisted two local television stations, one broadcasting in English and the other in Spanish, to host an on-air informational “foster care phone bank” to drum up more participating families.
DHS’s dire situation runs against any claim that it was looking to make the front pages. Instead the clash seems to have been instigated by a reporter at the Philadelphia Inquirer. On March 13 the newspaper published a story with the headline, “Two foster agencies in Philly won’t place kids with LGBTQ people.” It opened with the tale of a lesbian couple dissuaded from a foster-care information session by Bethany Christian Services five months prior. The reporter highlighted the reaction of an ACLU of Pennsylvania lawyer and suggested that BCS and CSS were likely in violation of both city law and the United States Constitution. In that context, the reporter also pressed both DHS and the City’s Human Relations Commission for official responses. Just two days later, DHS issued its suspensions and the Philadelphia City Council unanimously passed a resolution to investigate contracting practices at DHS. Mayor Jim Kenney, described by Philadelphia Magazine as a “disaffected Catholic” engaged in a twenty-year public feud with the Archdiocese of Philadelphia, added in an interview that “we cannot use taxpayer dollars to fund organizations that discriminate against people because of their sexual orientation or because of their same-sex marriage status. It’s just not right.”
In another sense, the break between the City of Philadelphia and conservative Christians is surprising only in how long it took to happen. Since the Supreme Court’s 2015 Obergefell opinion declaring a constitutional right to same-sex marriage, personal services have become the most active front in America’s culture war over sex, marriage, and the family. Wedding services are currently before the United States Supreme Court. Counseling services are an increasingly popular target for state legislation normalizing homosexuality. Foster care and adoption services have been debated this year in the state legislatures of Georgia, Oklahoma, Kansas, and Colorado. They are also the focus of federal district court cases in Michigan, Texas, and now, in response to this case, Pennsylvania.
The City of Philadelphia’s decision to suspend foster care contracts with Catholic Social Services and Bethany Christian Services is not motivated by an interest in child welfare. There are no charges of negligent or harmful practices against either provider. Nor is it motivated by limited gay and lesbian adult access to foster children. The City of Philadelphia has a non-discrimination ordinance which includes sexual orientation and works with more than two dozen other Philadelphia foster care agencies which do place children with same-sex couples. The demise of Philadelphia DHS’s liberal approach to foster care contracting is motivated by a desire to purge dissenters and purify the state. According to data collected by the Philadelphia Inquirer, in 2017 CSS absorbed 1.9 percent of all Philadelphia DHS payments to foster care providers, while BCS absorbed 1.5 percent. Yet to allow even 3.4 percent of one city agency’s budget to merely pass through socially conservative social service agencies is now seen as intolerable.
This intolerance is typical of government in the Boston-Washington corridor and on the Pacific coast, where the normalization of homosexuality is a hallmark of contemporary professional and managerial class culture and status. States such as Massachusetts and Illinois, and cities such as San Francisco and Washington, D.C. long ago stopped partnering with Catholic Charities adoption services over matters of homosexuality. Only nine US states currently offer explicit exemptions from non-discrimination laws to religiously based foster-care and adoption agencies, and, not surprisingly, none are in the elite heartland. Big Business has also, perhaps surprisingly, taken interest in state foster care policies. Fortune 500 firms in entertainment, high technology, and communications threatened a capital strike in Colorado, Georgia, Kansas, and Oklahoma this year if each passed a bill exempting religiously based foster-care and adoption providers from sexual-orientation non-discrimination requirements. The cultural interests of business effectively split state Republican parties between social conservatives in favor of the legislation and Chamber of Commerce conservatives in opposition. In Colorado and Georgia, where elites are more plentiful and capital more powerful, the bills failed.
As long as the federal courts refuse to nationalize the question of foster care and adoption as they nationalized same-sex marriage, non-profits like Bethany Christian Services can survive in strongly Evangelical states in the South and the Midwest. Catholic Social Services faces a far less friendly social terrain, however. This is not only because Catholics are most numerous in precisely the Northeastern states dominated by the country’s professional-managerial elite. During the height of German Kulturkampf in the 1870s, Catholic archbishops were marched to prison amidst the universal support of their faithful—whereas today Catholic politicians are among the Church’s most aggressive opponents. Mayor Kenney, proud son of both St. Joseph’s Preparatory School and La Salle University, has accused the Philadelphia Archdiocese of being “too male centered with no opportunity for dissent,” wrote a public letter on City Council letterhead to the archdiocese over its policies on co-educational sports, publicly requested that Pope Francis “kick some ass” in Philadelphia, and disparaged Philadelphia Archbishop Charles Chaput’s enforcement of Catholic doctrine as “not Christian.” Though social conservatives currently place their hope in the law, political unity is likely to prove far more valuable in the long run.
Darel E. Paul is professor of political science at Williams College and author of From Tolerance to Equality: How Elites Brought American to Same-Sex Marriage.