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


  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

 Connect with us on Twitter


  • Love your church: This engaging book by Tony Merida explores what church is, why it’s exciting to be a part of it, and why it’s worthy of our love and commitment. | Find out more about this book at
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)

For Further Reading:

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.

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By / Jun 11

“Daddy!” Our daughter was crying out my name for the first time. She was 4 years old, and we were staying in Addis Ababa, Ethopia, for medical checks and visas so we could fly our three newest kids home. She didn’t know much English yet, but she knew what to call me. And she knew when to call me. 

Her new brother, who was 3, had just taken a toy car from her. She’d tried to get it back, but having no real power, she eventually cried out to the only person in the room who could right the wrong and bring order to chaos. I walked over, figured out what had happened, and returned the car to her. In that micro-world of toy-taking injustice, order was restored.

But what if I hadn’t been there?

On your own

For the first four years of her life, I wasn’t. Orphanage workers had done their heroic best, but children aren’t designed for systems and institutions, no matter how merciful their mission or excellent their care. Children are made for families.

I remember touring her large orphanage in the one opportunity we had to see it. At one point, we came across a roving pack of kids, and there was a commotion. Some of the kids had taken a boy’s sandal, and he was yelling for it. A passing worker shouted something, and they tossed the boy’s sandal to the side and ran off, snickering.

A toy car. A stolen sandal. These are tiny wrongs in the annals of human grievance. But pile them up—and they do pile up—and they scar the spirits of those too young to understand but not too young to feel that their world is not the way it’s supposed to be. This constant vulnerability, with its unrighted wrongs and untreated wounds, sends a dark message to far too many children: you’re on your own in the world. 

The Lord comes

Psalm 98 sends an opposite message. In Psalm 98, seas roar, rivers clap, and hills break out singing. Why the celebration? Because “the Lord comes to judge the earth” (Ps. 98:7–9). This cosmic judicial action doesn’t just mean consequences for wrongdoing but the renewal of creation—the way things ought to be. The created world is longing to be “set free from its bondage to corruption” (Rom. 8:20–21). So when God finally arrives to set the world right, a celebration erupts.

But God doesn’t just wait until the end of time to start healing wounds, righting wrongs, and restoring order.

In these days between the first and second comings of Christ, God’s kingdom comes to earth in the form of his redeemed church, the new covenant family that calls Jesus “Lord.” As our Lord welcomed little children, we welcome them ourselves (Mark 10:13–16). The healthy church is an embassy of orphan-loving ambassadors, birthed out of the heart of an infinite Father.

Holy and here to help

Many Christians are familiar with James’ challenge to care for the vulnerable: “Religion that is pure and undefiled before God the Father is this: to visit orphans and widows in their affliction, and to keep oneself unstained from the world” (James 1:27). But why does James draw a connection between helping the vulnerable (“visit orphans and widows”) and personal holiness (“unstained from the world”)?

James is remixing lines from a hymn written by King David 1,000 years earlier: “Father of the fatherless and protector of widows is God in his holy habitation. God settles the solitary in a home” (Ps. 68:5–6).

The world system, corrupt and polluted, worships power and position and prestige. In this value system, the weak and vulnerable mean little. But God sees the weakest in his world with the love of a creator, the heart of a father, and the moral commitment of a holy judge.

God, in his holiness, protects the vulnerable, so God’s family—by nature—does the same. Over and over, we’re told that we share his moral DNA. “You shall be holy, for I am holy” (1 Pet. 1:16). “Put on the new self, created after the likeness of God” (Eph. 4:24). “Be imitators of God, as beloved children” (Eph. 5:1–2). “Be merciful, even as your Father is merciful” (Luke 6:46). “Wash yourselves; make yourselves clean . . . bring justice to the fatherless” (Isa. 1:16–17).

A long road

But there is no triumphalism here, no hagiography about the holiness of orphan care. Adoption and fostering can be hard for all involved—traumatic transitions for the kids, confusion and stress for parents and siblings, a long road of hoped-for healing with no guaranteed results. There are gravities that are hard to rise above, and ceilings that are hard to break through.

Most families who step forward to help vulnerable children will walk some very dark valleys. Sometimes I cringe when I reread my sincere but naïve enthusiasm about orphan care from many years ago. Now, mid-marathon, we’re just limping forward as parents, doing our best to steer our kids straight into their fast-approaching adulthood.

Yet, our confidence in God’s calling to care for children in need has never wavered. Because I also know this: A stable family is its own therapy. Like a stream on a stone, families who choose this path shape and are shaped by the invaluable image-bearers God providentially brings us.

Abba, Father

Today, our four East African children are all teenagers. Their arguments aren’t about toys, and our conversations are mostly about school and decisions and truth and emotions and wisdom. My kids don’t cry out “Daddy!” anymore. But I do.

I cry out to my Father because I trust that the God who loved my kids before I ever knew them still loves them better than I ever will. I cry out to my Father because I’m asking him to save them, give them godly spouses, and make them wise. I cry out to my Father because we’re all broken, and I need the Lord to come each morning with new mercies for our family. I cry out to my Father because the day I became their dad, I became their advocate, protector, and lifelong intercessor. And I cry out to my Father because he has all the wisdom and strength I need for raising my adopted children—because he adopted me. And someday, when I grow up, I hope to be just like him.

For you did not receive the spirit of slavery to fall back into fear, but you have received the Spirit of adoption as sons, by whom we cry, “Abba! Father!” (Rom. 8:15).

By / May 10

A longstanding partnership between the Kentucky State Cabinet for Health and Family Services and Sunrise Children’s Services, one of the state’s oldest foster care providers, is in jeopardy of not being renewed after a months-long disagreement over language included in their annual contract. Sunrise Children’s Services, an institution of the Kentucky Baptist Convention, dates back to 1859, and their partnership with the state of Kentucky has been ongoing since the late 1970s. According to Dale Suttles, president of Sunrise, Sunrise Children’s Services “has helped the adoption of close to 600 children in state care become a reality over the last 15 years.”

What is the nature of the dispute?

As Todd Gray, executive director of the Kentucky Baptist Convention, said last week, “the dispute comes down to a conflict over one sentence in the contract the state has refused to delete.” While declining to address the specific details of the contract, Suttles and Gray both insist that the aforementioned sentence is one that conflicts with the organization’s deeply held religious beliefs. 

Susan Dunlap, a spokeswoman for the state Cabinet for Health and Family Services, argued the agreement submitted to Sunrise is “an agreement required by federal law.” Adding to the confusion, the Courier-Journal, the paper of record in Kentucky, characterized the dispute with the misleading headline, “Baptist group refuses Kentucky state contract to provide care for abused, neglected kids.”

Why the dispute now?

In the relationship between the Cabinet for Health and Family Services and Sunrise Children’s Services, there is a contract that must be reviewed and agreed upon by both parties on an annual basis. “In years past,” according to Gray, “an addendum or accommodation has been given (allowing for the exercise of Sunrise’s religious liberty), but that’s not the case in 2021.” After months of reaching out and attempting to discuss the contract with the cabinet, and arriving at no resolution, Gray stated that under these terms, “Sunrise cannot renew their contract with the state because of their deeply held religious beliefs.”

Without the addendum attached to the contract, as it has been in years past, Sunrise is unable to finalize the agreement. 

What are the consequences if no agreement is reached?

According to their website, Sunrise Children’s Services “provides care for close to 1,000 kids and family members throughout the state of Kentucky,” which includes foster care, therapeutic residential services, psychiatric residential treatment services, family services, and an independent living program for kids and families in crisis. If no agreement is reached, the commonwealth should “anticipate some degree of disruption” to its child welfare services, says Terry Brooks, executive director of Kentucky Youth Advocates. 

Though Suttles insists that Sunrise “won’t abandon Kentucky’s children,” it is undeniable that failure to reach an agreement with the cabinet will pose significant challenges to one of the state’s most valuable providers of children’s services and the children they serve. 

Where do things stand now?

While there are reports that Sunrise Children’s Services has refused the state contract or are “pulling out on the state,” Gray says that “nothing could be further from the truth. Sunrise would sign a contract today that respects their deeply held religious convictions.”

As it stands, the ball seems to be in the Cabinet for Health and Family Services’ court. If they are willing to adopt an addendum or accommodation, as they’ve done for so many years, that allows for the exercise of Sunrise Children’s Services religious liberty, Sunrise is adamant that they will promptly sign the agreement. But Suttles and Gray are adamant that Sunrise will not compromise their long-held religious convictions.

How does religious liberty factor in?

Religious freedom is a fundamental right. It is unconscionable that a government, which has for so long benefited from the services provided by Kentucky Baptists, discriminate against its citizens on the basis of their religion. No religious entity should be forced between the services they provide and the faith that motivates them to provide it. Kentucky’s children should not be used as pawns in the cabinet’s efforts to eliminate conscience protections for religious citizens in Kentucky.

Sunrise Children’s Services is a vital provider of care for children in crisis in Kentucky. The ERLC stands with Sunrise and Kentucky Baptists in this matter. And we urge the cabinet to make the necessary accommodations, actions that represent no material burden to Kentucky, to resolve this matter immediately. Child welfare is no place for the state to play games to advance pernicious social policy.