By / Oct 3

Southern Baptists have a long history of following in the footsteps of the faith and serving those in need. When Jesus was on Earth, he did not bypass physical needs but met them and used them as a way to share how he was meeting the greatest need of all—the salvation of our souls. Likewise, Send Relief, a collaboration between NAMB and the IMB, seeks to address needs that arise from various circumstances while also sharing the hope of Jesus. One focus of the work at Send Relief is foster care and adoption, which is all the more important in a country without Roe. Josh Benton, vice president of North American ministry at Send Relief, answered a few of our questions about this aspect of their ministry and how churches can be involved. 

Lindsay Nicolet: How does foster care and adoption ministry fit within the mission of Send Relief? 

Josh Benton: Send Relief is the Southern Baptist compassion ministry which seeks to meet physical and spiritual needs in Jesus’ name. Working alongside churches, we care for the vulnerable and strengthen communities around the world. Caring for families and children is one of our five ministry focus areas. Our work in this area includes developing and supporting ministries focused on crisis pregnancy, serving at-risk families, and helping churches develop or support ministries to vulnerable families within their communities. 

LN: What projects is Send Relief involved in as you seek to engage in the foster care and adoption space? 

JB: Send Relief engages foster care and adoption in two specific ways. First, is through our ministry centers. We have 20 Send Relief ministry centers across North America. Two of them, Valdosta, Georgia, and Quebradillas, Puerto Rico, are child placement agencies for foster care and adoption. In addition to child placement, these locations provide training for foster and adoptive families. We also work with churches to help support vulnerable families in their communities with resources, counseling, and respite care, along with providing an opportunity for churches to go on mission trips to learn more about and get hands-on experience with foster care and adoption ministry.  

Second, Send Relief helps churches start a Family Advocacy Ministry, which we call a FAM. FAM is a step-by-step ministry strategy that helps churches serve and advocate for vulnerable children and families as well as those called to foster and adopt. Send Relief helps churches implement FAMs so they can have a gospel-centered impact on the lives of vulnerable children and families.

LN: How does God’s Word drive your work in this key area? 

JB: Scripture is clear about the call to care for vulnerable families. Genesis 1:26-27 establishes that all people are created and designed by God, in the image of God, and are therefore valued by God. Genesis 2 describes God’s intentional design for the family. Then, Genesis 3-4 shows the damaging impact of sin on all creation but, specifically, how sin creates brokenness in families. 

From Deuteronomy 10 to James 1 and several references in between, God not only calls his people to remain committed to his design for the family but to also care for the those without stable, intact families. Romans 8 also beautifully portrays adoption as a picture of our redemption through Christ.

With this in mind, we can sum up how Scripture provides the truths that cultivate Send Relief’s perspective on serving in foster care and adoption ministry with a few statements:

  • Every person is created in the image of God, therefore, all people have value.
  • God designed the family and desires all to be in a family.
  • Christ calls us to reflect his compassion and care for the vulnerable.
  • Foster care and adoption portray how God redeems through a personal faith in Christ. 

LN: What challenges arise with serving children in need and families in today’s culture? And how have/will these change in a post-Roe era?

JB: The challenges for serving vulnerable children and families are significant. Here are a few key statistics from Adoptuskids.org and the Administration for Children and Families

  • Each year more than 250,000 children enter the foster care system in the United States.
  • At any given time, there are on average over 400,000 children in the foster care system.
  • Each year more than 23,000 children age out of the foster care system when they turn 18 or 21, depending on a state’s laws.
  • Currently, more than 115,000 children in foster care are waiting to be adopted.
  • The average age of a child in foster care is 8 years old.
  • Troubling statistics for children who age out of the system:
    • Likely to experience job loss and homelessness
    • 70% of human trafficking victims spent time in foster care
    • 71% of women who age out experience pregnancy within one year 
    • 65% of individuals who are incarcerated aged out of the foster care system

These challenges will likely intensify in our post-Roe world. These are all harrowing statistics, but one of the most significant issues is that there are more children in need provides an opportunity for churches to fill the gap. With more than 115,000 children in the foster care system who are waiting to be adopted each year, churches can play a role by recruiting families to foster and adopt, mentoring vulnerable families, and providing communities of care for those who are fostering and/or adopting.

LN: How can pastors and ministry leaders create a culture of equipping families to care for children?

JB: No matter what community, city, or state you are in, vulnerable families are present. This isn’t a ministry opportunity that is somewhere else; it’s everywhere. Pastors and church leaders have an important role of recognizing the need that exists, articulating the biblical call to meet the need, and blessing those in their congregation who are led to pursue the ministry opportunity. Send Relief has resources on our FAM page to help pastors and churches pursue ministry to vulnerable families and children.

LN: What are some practical things that local churches can do to come alongside this mission to serve families and those involved in foster care and adoption?

JB: There are several ways churches join Send Relief to serve vulnerable families. One of the most important things is to recognize that there are many ways to serve. There is a great need for families to foster and adopt. Encourage those who are called but also understand not everyone feels that call, and there are multiple ways to serve outside of adopting and fostering. Here are specific ways churches can serve:

  • Praying diligently and consistently for vulnerable children and families
  • Developing a relationship with a local child welfare office
  • Raising awareness about the needs of vulnerable children and families
  • Recruiting families to consider adopting or fostering
  • Providing resources, as well as emotional and spiritual support, to biological families experiencing crisis
  • Helping to meet physical and financial needs of foster and adoptive families
  • Mentoring single mothers
  • Supporting and encouraging local child welfare workers
  • Providing meals or respite care to foster and adoptive families
  • Going on a mission trip at a Send Relief ministry center that serves vulnerable families

For more information on the Dobbs decision and its effects, visit erlc.com/dobbs

By / May 26

At any given moment, an estimated 400,000 U.S. children and teens are in foster care. There also happens to be roughly that many churches across the United States.

“Foster care impacts every community in the U.S., which means that every local church has an opportunity to fulfill the biblical call to care for the fatherless and the vulnerable,” said Josh Benton, vice president of North American ministries at Send Relief. “Through Family Advocacy Ministry, Send Relief is committed to helping churches serve at-risk families and children with quality, Gospel-centered ministry.”

Family Advocacy Ministries 

May is National Foster Care Month, and Send Relief, the compassion ministry arm for Southern Baptists, has been raising awareness for how churches can become involved. Send Relief equips churches to develop Family Advocacy Ministries (FAM) in their congregations that support at-risk children and families in their communities.

“Our good friends were fostering, and we wanted to do something to help them,” Shari King, an advocate of FAM at First Baptist Church Watkinsville, Georgia, said in written comments. “We found out that our FAM was providing practical support to foster families. Initially, we helped by providing one meal for the family each month.”

King and her family, over time, became more involved in volunteering with their FAM before going on to become foster parents themselves.Through a FAM, local churches develop volunteers who provide imminently practical service for foster families by babysitting, tutoring, providing diapers, clothes, and other resources or giving Christmas and birthday presents.

“We want churches to know that the greatest thing that they can offer is not the food that they may bring or other resources, but it’s the relationships,” said Logan Mabe, Send Network planter and lead pastor of Ocean View Church in Chula Vista, Calif. “It’s praying for that family intentionally on a regular basis. It is a phone call checking on a family. It’s all grounded in relationships. That is really, ultimately, what we want to see churches do in San Diego. It’s evangelism and discipleship. It’s long obedience in the same direction.”

When a FAM meets tangible needs and invests in relationships, it helps relieve burdens for foster care families in what is often a fast-paced, busy lifestyle as those families meet the needs of their children.

“Logistics are incredibly challenging in the foster care world. It’s not something I was prepared for, honestly,” said Hayley Catt, a NAMB staff member and single foster mom, in an interview with Send Relief. “Two to three times a week, we are opening our home to therapists, social workers, family consultants, volunteers, and more. We have to rush from one appointment to another, and we don’t get a lot of down time. Having help with transportation, house cleaning, meals, etc., helps to ease that burden.”

A FAM can also help meet spiritual needs when opportunities for gospel conversations arise within foster families as they come and participate in the local church.

“We have also seen kids come into care with families in our church who have accepted Christ,” said Marlaina Harper, an advocate of FAM at Lakewood Baptist Church in Gainesville, Georgia. “We’ve watched them take steps of faith to participate in baptism, as well. Watching both foster and birth families join together in their support of a child’s decision of faith was really meaningful for our whole church.”

In recent years, churches have become increasingly engaged in meeting the needs of foster children and families, but much work remains to be done.

“The work of Family Advocacy Ministries will not be done until there are more families waiting for kids than kids waiting for families. Intentional engagement from the whole Church could drastically alter the child welfare crisis as we know it,” said Connor McCauley, who works for Promise686, an orphan advocacy ministry. “I dream to see a world where every church in every community is dedicated to bringing hope, redemption and care for the kids and families living in the shadows. They need the hope of the Gospel. They need the Church.”

To learn more about how churches can engage in Family Advocacy Ministry, visit SendRelief.org.

This post originally appeared at Baptist Press

By / Mar 16

The turning point for me occurred at a funeral. I was holding a 4-year-old child I did not know. His mother had passed away after overdosing on a dangerous mix of fentanyl and cocaine. The family reached out to our church and asked for a pastor to officiate the funeral. I’ll never forget the young boy’s words.

“Are you going to help bring my mommy back?”

I didn’t have words for him. Only tears. 

He was placed in a foster home. Thankfully, it was one full of love and support. At about the same time as the funeral, a local newspaper headline caught my attention: “Bradenton is opioid overdose capital of Florida. And still no one knows why.”

Every year, hundreds of children are removed from their homes in our county. Over half of them are directly attributed to the substance abuse of parents and guardians. Most of the children removed are under the age of 5. I did not have the right words for the 4-year-old, but his question prompted me to act. I could not bring his mom back, but my wife and I could be foster parents for children in situations like his. So we got our license and began our foster journey. 

The foster system in our area is stretched thin. When licensed as a foster parent, you receive a child placement immediately. My wife and I recently cared for an infant struggling with the effects of cocaine addiction. Every drug a pregnant mother consumes passes in her bloodstream through the placenta and to the child. Babies are born addicted, and it can be a horrible experience for them as the central nervous system tries to recover.

Church members and foster care 

Foster children are one of the most overlooked and underserved groups of people in our nation. Most communities struggle to find placements for these children. Local churches in the United States have more than enough homes to solve the problem, but few Christian families are pursuing fostering. But what happens when people in your congregation start fostering children?

Your church is woven into the fabric of the community. In my role at Church Answers (a resource site for ministry leaders), I’m often asked, “How can my church better serve and reach the community?” There are many ways to answer the question, but one answer is obvious: start a fostering movement in your congregation. Caring for foster children forces you to be an active part of your community. You interact with social workers, struggling parents, judges, and police officers. Fostering weaves you tightly into the community and allows your church to be a thread pulling everyone together.  

Your church is recognized as a solution to community problems. The issues producing foster children are often the core sins plaguing a community. When people in your church foster, the neighborhood tends to view you as helpful. Foster children are the result of the worst problems in the community. Inviting them into your church homes makes you one of the best solutions for your neighbors. 

Your church is pushed outward with God’s mission. The church is not designed to be a shield protecting the Christian bubble of safety. Rather, the church is a vehicle engineered by God to send people into the darkest corners of the neighborhood. Fill your church with foster children, and your people will be filled with a desire to do gospel work. 

Your church is compelled into a posture of selflessness. I hear the excuse all the time, “I couldn’t foster because it would be hard to give the child back.” I understand the sentiment. Indeed, my wife and I live this paradox. The purpose of fostering is more than raising a child. It’s about reuniting a family. You care for children and encourage moms and dads. Fostering is a weighty burden that will bend you hard in the direction of selflessness. Is it painful? Yes, sometimes. Is it worth the stretch? Always. 

Taking a risk and doing what’s right

We see the risk and reward of caring for a child in need in the book of Exodus. When Pharaoh’s daughter opened the basket floating on the Nile, she saw a baby and said, “This must be one of the Hebrew children” (Exodus 2:6, NLT). This must be one. One child saved. Imagine the desperation of Moses’ mom, placing him in the papyrus basket and letting him drift away from the safety of her arms. 

Imagine the courage of Moses’ sister, Miriam. At significant risk, she keeps watching over the basket. She is an advocate. She stays close to the crisis to help. She risks everything when she reaches out to Pharaoh’s daughter.

Imagine the audacity of Pharaoh’s daughter. She is part of the family committing genocide, but she becomes a person of power who uses her position to do what is right. The child in the basket moves her. A child in need should move us all to action.

There was a tremendous risk to all the women in this story, but it did not stop them from doing the right thing. What if the church looked at the foster system as a floating papyrus basket? What if the people of the church opened the basket and had the same response as Pharaoh’s daughter? Let’s not let these children continue to drift. Your home might be a promised land of sorts for them. A movement of God within your community and your church could start with just one child. How is he calling your church to step out in faith and care for the most vulnerable ones in your community? 

By / Nov 19

On Nov. 18, the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS), through the Administration for Children and Families (ACF) and Office for Civil Rights (OCR), announced the rescission of waivers issued by the Trump administration that protect the religious freedom and consciences of millions of Americans. Notably, HHS is rescinding waivers given to South Carolina, Texas, and Michigan, including child welfare agencies in those states.

Why does this matter?

This action is deeply troubling for faith-based organizations and people who serve communities in their states according to their religious beliefs. The waivers granted to these states protect the religious freedom of faith-based groups serving vulnerable children. 

We need more organizations serving children in foster care, not less. There are currently 423,997 children in the U.S. foster care system, and that number is likely going to continue to increase due to the COVID-19 pandemic and its affect on families. At a time when children need safe, permanent, and loving homes, the government should be ensuring that more providers can serve.

One of the states whose waiver is being rescinded by HHS is South Carolina, and this action will impact an organization entitled Miracle HIll.

Miracle Hill Waiver

In 2019 under the Trump administration, the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) announced a religious liberty waiver for South Carolina’s faith-based organizations following a request from South Carolina Gov. McMaster. The governor made the request when one such organization, Miracle Hill Ministries, was in danger of losing its funding because of an Obama-era regulation that applied to all HHS grantees. 

For almost 30 years, Miracle Hill served all foster children of any race, nationality, religious belief, sex, disability, or political belief and was responsible for finding good placements for 15% of the over 4,500 children in the South Carolina foster care system. Miracle Hill is clear that its sincerely held religious beliefs are what motivate their work in caring for the needy and vulnerable. They view their foster care services as direct obedience to the biblical directive to care for vulnerable children.

This waiver, based on the Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA), granted protections for faith-based organizations in South Carolina and allowed them to continue receiving federal funding without compromising their religious principles and convictions.

Fulton v. City of Philadelphia

In June, the Supreme Court unanimously ruled in Fulton v. City of Philadelphia  that faith-based foster care and adoption providers, such as Catholic Social Services in Philadelphia, can continue serving children and families according to their convictions. In the Fulton decision, the court strengthened and clarified the Free Exercise Clause of the First Amendment. 

The basis for the court’s ruling is a clause included in contracts by the City of Philadelphia that give city officials the power to grant certain exemptions. The city government said it has never given out such an exemption and had no intention of providing one to CSS based on their religious beliefs. While the Fulton case set an important precedent for faith-based child welfare providers, there could be lawsuits filed against HHS for this rescission of religious liberty waivers.

Americans have a Constitutional right to religious freedom, and our government must respect the First Amendment and people of faith who serve according to their deeply held religious beliefs.

HHS stated that they would “evaluate religious exemptions and modifications of program requirements on a case-by-case basis.” 

How is the ERLC involved?

Brent Leatherwood, ERLC’s Acting President, stated, 

“These actions not only prevent faith-based child welfare providers from serving vulnerable children in foster care, but they also reveal an animus toward people of faith. Instead of a government that serves the people, these actions show a government willing to target groups for their beliefs. This has the effect of further eroding trust at a time when government institutions can least afford it. Our public square cannot continue to sustain these sorts of reckless and arbitrary changes that are rooted in political ideology, especially those that punish faith-based adoption agencies and religious organizations. Children in need are the ones who end up suffering because of this unending political warfare. That must stop.”

The ERLC is advocating before the administration on behalf of the faith community.  As Leatherwood affirmed, “Every elected official must recognize that religious freedom is a cornerstone of the Constitution. Our government, therefore, has a duty to protect the rights of those who enter the public square with sincerely-held religious beliefs, not assail them. We have communicated our concerns about these moves to the Administration and we will continue advocating on behalf of the faith community on this important matter.”

The ERLC will always promote and defend the human dignity, religious liberty, and conscience rights of all people and religious organizations — within each administration, on Capitol Hill, and throughout the public square. We will continue to work to ensure that vulnerable children in our nation can find safe, permanent, and loving homes.

By / Nov 17

Many people ask why my husband and I decided to adopt through foster care. While the question is straightforward, the reasons are complex. I could appeal to logic by offering statistics: Did you know that over 400,000 children are currently in foster care, with over 100,000 waiting to be adopted? I could appeal to emotions and tell you how we watched numerous church friends lovingly adopt children from overseas. I could appeal to experience and recount mission trips where we ministered to children in group homes. Or I could share my personal story of living with two different families during my sophomore and senior years in high school, and how these families’ generosity taught me the importance of opening your home to those in need. 

I could also discuss worldview, and how my husband and I wanted to give our kids a Christian worldview that was bigger and more gospel-centered than what our cushy suburban life was offering them. While they were receiving a quality education and a neighborhood where they were free to run and play with their friends, they were also sheltered to the ways in which people struggle and, more importantly, the ways in which God intervenes and rescues them. 

In the end, we knew God was calling us to more than this white-picket-fence-life we were living. There is not one place in the Bible where God calls his people to live in a way that is always safe, predictable, and easy. In fact, it is just the opposite. God asks his people to live lives of sacrifice, courage, surrender, and often of risk. Jesus even stated, “Then he said to them all: ‘Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross daily and follow me. For whoever wants to save their life will lose it, but whoever loses their life for me will save it’” (Luke 9:23-24, NIV). 

We wanted to teach our children that life is more than a picture-perfect, Norman Rockwell painting. Life is more than birthday parties, school sports, and Sunday school. Life itself is a mission field. Life is not neat and tidy; it is frustrating and messy, but we must be willing to dig deep with people. We wanted to teach our children how to authentically live out the gospel, and what better way to do that than through foster care and adoption? Just as God adopted us into his family (Eph. 1:5), we had the opportunity to adopt a child into our family — a child who might not otherwise ever know love, safety, security, or God’s Word.  

Answering God’s call, seeing God’s plan 

I could give you all these reasons why we chose to adopt through foster care. However, in the end, we chose this journey for one simple reason: because God called us. There were days before we were licensed to foster that I was excited and steadfast in our call. But the further along we journeyed in the process and the more classes we took, the more unsure I became. My mind raced with anxious thoughts: What if I am not prepared? How will this impact my kids? What will people think? I already have three kids; how will I manage four kids? 

Then, I read a quote by popular author and Bible teacher Priscilla Shirer that brought me peace and reminded me of God’s call. It read, “Don’t let anyone talk you out of what God is talking you into.” I knew at that moment that I could no longer worry about what other people thought. I was done indulging in my own insecurities. I would not entertain the lying whispers from the enemy anymore. God had called us to this mission, and we would obey.  

After becoming licensed foster parents, we welcomed a 9-week-old baby girl into our home. She was tiny and quiet, and we learned (and are still learning) a lot about trauma and attachment through her. We realized the importance of trauma-informed resources and training to help us love and care for children like her. Of course, we loved her instantly. And though the goal of foster care is always reunification with the biological family, there are times when that isn’t in the best interest of the child. So, we eventually adopted her when she was 19 months old. We thought our family was complete. We had answered God’s call and now had two boys and two girls. A picture-perfect, neat-and-tidy suburban family once again. God, however, was not done writing our story. 

A few months after our daughter’s adoption, we received a call that her baby brother had been born. Would we take him, too? Yes, we would. We fostered our son and adopted him when he was 17 months old. Unlike his sister, he was chunky and chatty — the life of the party. He was the child we never expected and yet the one God knew would make our family complete. Today, our children are ages 5, 7, 12, 14, and 16. Our family is loud, fun, overwhelming, chaotic, joyful, stressful. Every day our house is filled with laughter, fighting, playing, crying, praying, talking, yelling, sharing, and all the things that fill every other home. 

How might you answer the call? 

Over the years, we have heard it all: You’re amazing. You’re incredible. Your kids are so lucky to have you. I could never do what you did. The truth is these words are false. We aren’t heroes, we are human. We have failed more times than we’ve succeeded. We’ve yelled when we should have held. We’ve made mistakes, and we have regrets. We are just two ordinary people who answered God’s call.

I urge you to consider how God might be calling you to step in and help a foster child. When it comes to foster care, we are not all called to do the same thing, but we are all called to do something. “Religion that God our Father accepts as pure and faultless is this: to look after orphans and widows in their distress and to keep oneself from being polluted by the world” (James 1:27, NIV). Consider the following ways you might get involved in foster care:

  • Become foster care babysitter certified
  • Become respite certified
  • Become a CASA (Court Appointed Special Advocate) volunteer
  • Donate items (diapers, clothing, backpacks, gift cards) to your local Child Protective Services (CPS) or foster care agency
  • Start a foster care/adoption ministry at your church
  • Become a foster parent
  • Start a Care Community at your church
  • Adopt through foster care
  • Pray for those involved in foster care (foster children, foster parents, biological parents, caseworkers, attorneys, judges)

The most incredible part of our story is that anyone can live it. Anyone can help in some way. As I mentioned before, there are 400,000 children who are currently in the foster care system, with over 100,000 waiting to be adopted. The prophet Isaiah once wrote, “Learn to do good; commit yourselves to seeking justice. Make right for the world’s most vulnerable — the oppressed, the orphaned, the widow” (Isa. 1:17, The Voice). Is there anyone more vulnerable than a child who has been separated from his parents? And is there anything more beautiful than the church stepping up to care for them and their families, in Jesus’ name? 

By / Nov 15

This week, Chelsea Sobolik sits down with Herbie Newell of Lifeline Children’s Services to discuss National Adoption Month, how the church can care for vulnerable children, and how we can be preparing for a post-Roe world.

Guest Biography

Herbie Newell is the President/Executive Director of Lifeline Children’s Services and it’s ministry arms including (un)adopted, Crossings, and Lifeline Village. Herbie holds a Master’s degree in Accounting from Samford University. He joined the Lifeline staff in 2003 as Executive Director. From January 2004 to December 2008, he served as the president of the Alabama Adoption Coalition. Herbie was chosen as a Hague Intercountry Adoption evaluator and team leader by the Council of Accreditation and serves in that capacity currently. Under Herbie’s leadership, Lifeline has increased the international outreach to 23 countries, helped Lifeline attain membership in the ECFA (Evangelical Council on Financial Accountability), and led the creation of foster care ministry. Having witnessed the plight of older orphans on many trips overseas, Herbie’s burden for the fatherless was a catalyst for starting (un)adopted during 2009. He worked with WAKM Companies, LLC, a prominent accounting firm, for many years as an independent auditor before being led to Lifeline.  He and his wife, Ashley, live in Birmingham, Alabama, and are parents to son, Caleb, and daughters Adelynn and Emily.

Resources from the Conversation

By / Jun 18

On this episode, Josh, Lindsay, and Brent highlights from the SBC 2021 and the religious liberty victory in the Fulton v. City of Philadelphia Supreme Court ruling.

ERLC Content

Culture

  1. Baptist Press: WRAP-UP: SBC elects Litton, takes control of EC investigation
  2. ERLC Annual Report: ERLC: Ultrasound placements continue to expand
  3. ERLC calls Supreme Court ruling in Fulton “a decisive 9-0 win for religious freedom”
  4. Light Magazine: The Road to ROE50: The Future of the Pro-life Movement
  5. SBC funny highlights: A/C guy; Lotties; Don’t flex at me

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By / Jun 17

In a decisive win for religious freedom, the Supreme Court unanimously ruled in Fulton v. City of Philadelphia that faith-based foster care and adoption providers, such as Catholic Social Services in Philadelphia, can continue serving children and families according to their convictions.

While all justices ruled in favor of CSS, there were multiple concurring opinions. Chief Justice John Roberts wrote the majority opinion and was joined by Justices Breyer, Sotomayor, Kagan, Kavanaugh, and Barrett. Barrett filed a concurring opinion that was joined by Justices Kavanaugh and Breyer, although Breyer did not join in the first paragraph of this opinion. Justice Alito filed another concurring opinion that was joined by Justices Thomas and Gorsuch. Lastly, Justice Gorsuch filed a concurring opinion that was joined by Justices Thomas and Alito. 

Below are key quotes from both the majority opinion and concurrence, highlighting how the court reached its decision. Page numbers from the court’s decision are given for each quote, but legal citations are omitted for clarity of reading.

For more details on the religious liberty issues present in this case, see our explainer here

Chief Justice Roberts:

“The Free Exercise Clause of the First Amendment, applicable to the States under the Fourteenth Amendment, provides that “Congress shall make no law . . . prohibiting the free exercise” of religion. As an initial matter, it is plain that the City’s actions have burdened CSS’s religious exercise by putting it to the choice of curtailing its mission or approving relationships inconsistent with its beliefs.” (4–5).

“Government fails to act neutrally when it proceeds in a manner intolerant of religious beliefs or restricts practices because of their religious nature.” (5)

“The creation of a formal mechanism for granting exceptions renders a policy not generally applicable, regardless whether any exceptions have been given, because it “invite[s]” the government to decide which reasons for not complying with the policy are worthy of solicitude, here, at the Commissioner’s “sole discretion.” (10)

“[S]o long as the government can achieve its interests in a manner that does not burden religion, it must do so.” (13)

“The question, then, is not whether the City has a compelling interest in enforcing its non-discrimination policies generally, but whether it has such an interest in denying an exception to CSS.” (14)

“Maximizing the number of foster families and minimizing liability are important goals, but the City fails to show that granting CSS an exception will put those goals at risk. If anything, including CSS in the program seems likely to increase, not reduce, the number of available foster parents.” (14)

“As Philadelphia acknowledges, CSS has ‘long been a point of light in the City’s foster-care system.’ CSS seeks only an accommodation that will allow it to continue serving the children of Philadelphia in a manner consistent with its religious beliefs; it does not seek to impose those beliefs on anyone else. The refusal of Philadelphia to contract with CSS for the provision of foster care services unless it agrees to certify same-sex couples as foster parents cannot survive strict scrutiny, and violates the First Amendment.” (15)

Justice Barrett (joined by Justice Kavanaugh and Justice Breyer):

“A longstanding tenet of our free exercise jurisprudence . . . is that a law burdening religious exercise must satisfy strict scrutiny if it gives government officials discretion to grant individualized exemptions. As the Court’s opinion today explains, the government contract at issue provides for individualized exemptions from its nondiscrimination rule, thus triggering strict scrutiny. And all nine Justices agree that the City cannot satisfy strict scrutiny.” (2–3)

Justice Alito (joined by Justice Thomas and Justice Gorsuch):

“This case presents an important constitutional question that urgently calls out for review: whether this Court’s governing interpretation of a bedrock constitutional right, the right to the free exercise of religion, is fundamentally wrong and should be corrected.” (1)

“The city of Philadelphia (City) has issued an ultimatum to an arm of the Catholic Church: Either engage in conduct that the Church views as contrary to the traditional Christian understanding of marriage or abandon a mission that dates back to the earliest days of the Church— providing for the care of orphaned and abandoned children.” (3)

“Whether with or without government participation, Catholic foster care agencies in Philadelphia and other cities have a long record of finding homes for children whose parents are unable or unwilling to care for them. Over the years, they have helped thousands of foster children and parents, and they take special pride in finding homes for children who are hard to place, including older children and those with special needs.” (5)

“Recently, however, the City has barred Catholic Social Services (CSS) from continuing this work. Because the Catholic Church continues to believe that marriage is a bond between one man and one woman, CSS will not vet same-sex couples. As far as the record reflects, no same-sex couple has ever approached CSS, but if that were to occur, CSS would simply refer the couple to another agency that is happy to provide that service—and there are at least 27 such agencies in Philadelphia.” (5)

“By ousting CSS, the City eliminated one of its major sources of foster homes. And that’s not all. The City went so far as to prohibit the placement of any children in homes that CSS had previously vetted and approved. Exemplary foster parents like petitioners Sharonell Fulton and Toni Lynn Simms-Busch are blocked from providing loving homes for children they were eager to help.19 The City apparently prefers to risk leaving children without foster parents than to allow CSS to follow its religiously dictated policy, which threatens no tangible harm.” (6–7)

“CSS’s policy has not hindered any same-sex couples from becoming foster parents, and there is no threat that it will do so in the future.” (74)

“CSS’s policy has only one effect: It expresses the idea that same-sex couples should not be foster parents because only a man and a woman should marry. Many people today find this idea not only objectionable but hurtful. Nevertheless, protecting against this form of harm is not an interest that can justify the abridgment of First Amendment rights.” (74)

“We have covered this ground repeatedly in free speech cases. In an open, pluralistic, self-governing society, the expression of an idea cannot be suppressed simply because some find it offensive, insulting, or even wounding. . . . The same fundamental principle applies to religious practices that give offense. The preservation of religious freedom depends on that principle.” (74–75)

“Suppressing speech—or religious practice—simply because it expresses an idea that some find hurtful is a zero-sum game. While CSS’s ideas about marriage are likely to be objectionable to same-sex couples, lumping those who hold traditional beliefs about marriage together with racial bigots is insulting to those who retain such beliefs.” (75)

Justice Gorsuch (joined by Justice Thomas and Justice Alito):

“Smith failed to respect this Court’s precedents, was mistaken as a matter of the Constitution’s original public meaning, and has proven unworkable in practice. A majority of our colleagues, however, seek to sidestep the question. They agree that the City of Philadelphia’s treatment of Catholic Social Services (CSS) violates the Free Exercise Clause. But, they say, there’s no ‘need’ or ‘reason’ to address the error of Smith today.” (1)

“If CSS is unwilling to provide foster-care services to same-sex couples, the City prefers that CSS provide no foster-care services at all.” (8)

“The City has made clear that it will never tolerate CSS carrying out its foster-care mission in accordance with its sincerely held religious beliefs. To the City, it makes no difference that CSS has not denied service to a single same-sex couple; that dozens of other foster agencies stand willing to serve same-sex couples; or that CSS is committed to help any inquiring same-sex couples find those other agencies. The City has expressed its determination to put CSS to a choice: Give up your sincerely held religious beliefs or give up serving foster children and families.” (8)

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By / Jun 17

In a decisive win for religious freedom, the Supreme Court unanimously ruled in Fulton v. City of Philadelphia that faith-based foster care and adoption providers, such as Catholic Social Services in Philadelphia, can continue serving children and families according to their convictions.

“The government has many God-given duties, but punishing a group for its theology is emphatically not one of them,” said Daniel Patterson, acting president of the ERLC, in response to the Court’s decision this morning. Patterson’s comment continued: 

“It’s important to note as well that this decision prohibits no one from serving children — it simply ends state discrimination against religious groups. We must all remember what matters most is caring for children. If the government boxes out religious organizations and prohibits them from providing foster care and adoption services, the net effect is a massive shortage of available homes. Children in need should not be collateral damage in a culture war.”

While there were several concurring opinions, the justices, the Court held unianimously that the “refusal of Philadelphia to contract with Catholic Social Services (CSS) for the provision of foster care services unless CSS agrees to certify same-sex couples as foster parents violates the Free Exercise Clause of the First Amendment.”

What is this case about?

In 2018, a reporter from the Philadelphia Inquirer informed the City of Philadelphia’s Department of Human Services that two of its private foster care agencies, including CSS, would not work with same-sex couples as foster parents. The city investigated the allegation, which it considered a violation of the City’s anti-discrimination laws. When the agencies confirmed their religious views on marriage as essential for placement—although no same-sex couple had ever attempted to partner with CSS—the department ceased referring foster children to them and demanded they change their religious practices or close down their ministries. 

The plaintiffs in this case are Sharonell Fulton and Toni Simms-Busch, foster moms who wanted to continue caring for children in need. Fulton and Simms-Busch filed a lawsuit on behalf of CSS claiming the Philadelphia government had violated their rights under the First Amendment’s Free Exercise, Establishment, and Free Speech Clauses, as well as under Pennsylvania’s Religious Freedom Protection Act. The lawsuit asked the courts for an order requiring the city government to renew their contractual relationship while permitting CSS to maintain their religious convictions. In July 2018, the district court denied the request, and the case was immediately appealed to the Third Circuit Court of Appeals. However, the Court ruled against CSS and refused to protect the agency while its litigation proceeded to the U.S. Supreme Court. 

On the day of the oral arguments in D.C., Simms-Busch noted her gratitude that the justices “took our arguments seriously and seemed to understand that foster parents like me just want to provide loving homes for children.” Fulton added, “As a single woman of color, I’ve learned a thing or two about discrimination over the years—but I’ve never experienced the vindictive religious discrimination the City’s politicians have expressed toward my faith.” For more of the background on this case, see our explainer.

What is the significance of this case?

Today’s decision in Fulton is a critical win for religious liberty and children in need. People of faith have a right to serve children in need free of discrimination from the state. Now that the Supreme Court has clarified protections under the First Amendment, CSS can continue serving in Philadelphia at a time in which the city has called for more homes due to a foster care crisis. 

“Today’s Fulton decision is good news for children and families because we need a foster care system that welcomes all who are qualified to serve all who are in need,” noted Chelsea Patterson Sobolik, policy director for the ERLC, on the importance of the ruling for the child-welfare community. 

Sobolik also explained that, “Christians and the institutions formed from our churches are critical to the foundation of foster care in this country. Children are best served when we all work together.” Recent research from Barna revealed that practicing Christians are more than twice as likely to adopt relative to the general population, as highlighted by Becket Fund for Religious Liberty in a fact sheet on faith-based communities involvement in foster care. 

There are 423,997 children in the U.S. foster care system, and approximately a fourth of those children are eligible for adoption. The Supreme Court’s ruling today means that more children will find safe, permanent, and loving homes, because CSS will continue to be able to serve those in need. 

What did the Court rule?

The Court held that the City of Philadelphia infringed Catholic Social Services’ free exercise rights by refusing to renew its contract with CSS on the basis of the City’s agency contract and citywide Fair Practices Ordinance. These ordinances were in conflict with CSS’s core beliefs related to marriage and sexuality, and Philadelphia provided no religious exemption for CSS or groups like CSS.

This ruling was based on several arguments. First, the Court held that the City’s policies and ordinance were not “generally applicable,” and therefore were subject to a greater degree of scrutiny by the courts. The Court further argued, “Government fails to act neutrally when it proceeds in a manner intolerant of religious beliefs or restricts practices because of their religious nature.” Second, the Court held that CSS was not a “public accommodation” under the City’s ordinance. And third, the Court held that the City’s government interest in expanding LGBT rights was not sufficiently compelling to override CSS’s religious freedom rights. 

On this last point, it is worth quoting this key section of the Court’s reasoning:

The question, then, is not whether the City has a compelling interest in enforcing its non-discrimination policies generally, but whether it has such an interest in denying an exception to CSS. Once properly narrowed, the City’s asserted interests are insufficient. Maximizing the number of foster families and minimizing liability are important goals, but the City fails to show that granting CSS an exception will put those goals at risk. If anything, including CSS in the program seems likely to increase, not reduce, the number of available foster parents.

How did the ERLC engage in this case? 

The ERLC has been involved in this case specifically, and these issues more broadly, for years. For Fulton, submitted an amicus brief to the Supreme Court alongside a diverse coalition of churches and religious institutions. 

The brief argued that Employment Division v. Smith should be overruled because it’s “unworkable standard” has been a “disaster for religious freedom.” This matters for Fulton because “Philadelphia violated the Free Exercise Clause when it excluded Catholic Social Services as a foster care provider.” The Employment Division v. Smith case ruled that burdens resulting from neutral and generally applicable laws that target specific religious practices are not subject to strict scrutiny under the Free Exercise Clause. The ERLC also filed an amicus brief at the Third Circuit before the case reached the Supreme Court.

What about Justice Alito’s Concurrence? 

Some advocates note that Justice Alito was concerned about the durability of this ruling. In his concurring opinion, Justice Alito wrote, “this decision might as well be written on the dissolving paper sold in magic shops” because “if the City wants to get around today’s decision, it can simply eliminate the never-used exemption power.” Justice Alito  goes on to predict that “the City will claim that it is protected by Smith; CSS will argue that Smith should be overruled; the lower courts, bound by Smith, will reject that argument; and CSS will file a new petition in this Court challenging Smith.” Justice Alito goes on to critique Smith by stating that “we should reconsider Smith without further delay. The correct interpretation of the Free Exercise Clause is a question of great importance, and Smith’s interpretation is hard to defend.”

Justice Alito may be right that the Court will soon need to squarely decide whether Employment Division v. Smith is good law, and indeed, there are several cases on their way to the High Court that invite the Court to answer that question. In the meantime, this unanimous decision by the Court affirming the religious freedom rights of child welfare providers provides welcome answer to a question dividing courts today.

What does today’s ruling mean moving forward?

The Court’s decision strengthened and clarified the Free Exercise Clause of the First Amendment. This case provides reassurance for religious institutions at a time when the meaning and scope of civil rights laws are in flux. This will benefit religious institutions across that country that seek to serve children in need without violating their sincerely held beliefs. 

The child welfare system needs as many agencies seeking to care for vulnerable children as possible, and the Fulton decision simply means that the state should not punish providers and families for their faith. Children are best served when we all work together.

The ERLC will continue to engage our culture with the gospel of Jesus Christ in the public square to protect religious liberty and promote human flourishing. We will continue to work to ensure that vulnerable children in our nation can find safe, permanent, and loving homes.

For Further Reading: