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More than 25 years ago, three-year-old Brittany prayed for someone to play with as she watched the children at the Our Lady of Victory Catholic School playground across from her grandmother’s house in Philadelphia. Brittany’s grandmother is Sharonell Fulton, one of the foster parents now asking the U.S. Supreme Court to take up their case against the City of Philadelphia for freezing foster care referrals through Catholic Social Services because CSS refuses the city’s demand that it violate church teaching and certify same-sex couples as foster parents.

While Brittany was praying for a playmate, Wayne Thomas and his brother Sean were living in a dilapidated house with a drug-addicted uncle and aunt who fought viciously. During one fight, the boys’ uncle mistakenly threw boiling water on them. Wayne thinks a neighbor called the police after hearing their cries. An ambulance was soon rushing the boys (age 5 and 7) to the hospital for medical treatment. Upon their discharge, CSS placed Wayne and Sean in foster care with Fulton.

It turns out Wayne Thomas was the answer to Brittany’s playmate prayers, but Wayne’s prayers were answered too, through Fulton. Wayne stayed with Brittany and her younger siblings in the Fulton home until he was 19. Wayne and his brother consider Brittany and Fulton’s other two grandchildren their siblings. And Fulton? Wayne calls her “Meme.”

Now 31, Wayne says, “Meme was like a mother to me.” He credits her and CSS for his success in life. While he was an Our Lady of Victory Catholic School sixth-grader, Wayne represented the school at the World Youth Day in Germany in 2005 — an honor Meme talks about to this day.

Following graduation from middle school, Wayne went on to study at Mercy Career and Technical School, a private, Catholic vocational training high school. After this, he accepted a job as an HVAC technician. He has worked at the same company for the past 12 years. “I look at my life and the lives of my other siblings who did not go to foster care,” he says. “I think that my life is better because of what foster care gave me.”

Philadelphia Denies Children Excellent Foster Parents

“Meme” is, by all accounts, an exemplary foster mother in a city that desperately needs foster parents. Meme opened her home to more than 40 other foster children over the years. Wayne remembers that he and Meme would plant a tree whenever a new foster child came to live with them. “She said that the tree represented new growth, new opportunities,” says Wayne. “Now when I visit Meme’s home, I see those trees. I think about my life — still growing, still thriving.”

Meme is still ready to take in more foster kids through CSS in a city desperate to find foster parents. Philadelphia is desperate, but not desperate enough, apparently, to continue working with an organization that placed needy children in loving Philadelphia foster homes for more than 100 years.

When the City of Philadelphia assumed exclusive control over foster care 50 years ago, CSS, a part of the Philadelphia Archdiocese, and other private agencies partnered with the city’s foster care program. Since then, CSS has certified and supported countless foster care parents opening their homes to children. The archdiocese considers CSS’s work part of its ministry, just as many of the CSS-certified foster parents, Meme among them, see fostering children as an expression of their faith.

In early 2018, however, the city demanded that CSS agree to endorse same-sex couples as foster parents. CSS refused, citing centuries-old Catholic teaching on marriage and the family. It proposed referring same-sex couples to one of the other 29 foster care agencies partnering with the city. But the city’s commitment to longtime foster parents such as Meme Fulton and foster children such as Wayne was less important than political grandstanding.

Unwilling to accommodate CSS, the city refused to refer any more children for foster placement to the agency. It was the beginning of a brutal campaign against CSS. One city official had the audacity to instruct CSS leadership in the teachings of the Catholic Church, while the mayor initiated a human rights investigation of the agency. “Times have changed,” the city declared.

CSS, seeking to continue helping Philly’s desperately needy children while not having to violate church teaching on the family, challenged the city’s dictate in federal court. CSS lost at the district court level. In April, a three-judge panel of the 3rd Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that the city was simply enforcing a neutral law prohibiting discrimination based on a person’s sexual orientation. The panel said Catholic Social Services “has failed to make a persuasive [argument] showing that the City targeted it for its religious beliefs, or is motivated by ill will against its religion, rather than a sincere opposition to discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation.”

CSS is now asking the Supreme Court to review the case and clarify how courts should review government interference with the free exercise of religion. Wayne Thomas joined Philadelphia foster care parents and children in The Catholic Association’s amicus brief in support of this petition. What will happen if CSS is forced to close its doors? Mothers who want to foster will lose a great agency, Thomas says. An agency whose workers were positive and respectful and gave him so much hope.

Elevating Ideological Conformity Above Needy Children

It’s an issue with national significance. This Philadelphia story is not unique. Far beyond the City of Not-So-Brotherly Love, children needing stable, loving foster parents to rescue them from the worst domestic situations — and the religious institutions and people ready to protect these children — have a stake in the Supreme Court’s decision or non-decision.

Catholic foster care and adoption agencies in Washington, D.C., Boston, San Francisco, the state of Illinois, and Buffalo, New York, have closed in the face of similar ideological pressures. The state of Michigan recently reached a settlement agreement that requires all private adoption and foster care agencies to work with same-sex couples, despite a state law specifically offering accommodations for faith-based agencies.

Now, it’s important to see what’s at issue here, and what’s not. Philadelphia, like other jurisdictions, would remain free to place children with same-sex foster parents. CSS has never interfered with these efforts. The city has an active public outreach arm to promote foster parenting among same-sex households.

Again, 29 of the 30 agencies working with the city are willing to certify same-sex couples as foster parents. The city moved against CSS despite the fact that not a single same-sex couple had ever approached CSS seeking to become foster parents. It’s also worth noting that shortly before the city severed its relationship with CSS, it made an urgent call for an additional 300 foster families to meet the growing need.

The clear goal in Philadelphia and elsewhere seems to be enforcing ideological conformity. This appears to be far more important than respecting an institution’s long-standing, sincerely held religious beliefs or helping desperate children.

Severing ties with programs like these, under the guise of anti-discrimination laws, is the equivalent of hanging a “Catholics Need Not Apply” sign outside every state and local health and human services department. Such backdoor religious intolerance seems inconsistent with the Constitution’s guarantees of free speech and the free exercise of religion. And it will hurt vulnerable children in the most dire circumstances — children who are only a phone call away from help and, with God’s grace, a happy and successful life.

Children like young Wayne Thomas. And Thomas Paul.

‘Raised By a Living Saint’

Thomas Paul believes he was raised by a living saint. He was one of more than 100 foster children Cecilia Paul received into her home. (Mrs. Paul is one of the original litigants in the CSS case, but she died in the course of the litigation.) Thomas came to live with the Pauls when he was a newborn. His biological parents were involved, as Thomas says today, “in some bad stuff.”

CSS placed him and his older brother Andrew, only a year his senior, into foster care with the Pauls, who eventually adopted both of them. Although the two boys later made contact with their biological parents, Thomas and Andrew both consider Mrs. Paul to be the only mother they ever knew. Says Thomas, “I think that whoever raised you is your parent.”

Growing up in Mrs. Paul’s house prepared Thomas for life. She encouraged him to “work hard, focus, and do what you like.” Today, he’s 33 years old, a general contractor, and the father of two children, ages 6 and 1. He credits the support he found at the Paul home for his success in life. He remembers Mrs. Paul teaching him, “No matter how hard life comes at you, keep going, keep your head up.”

As a father of two young children, he continues to reflect on Mrs. Paul’s life and wisdom for advice and support in parenting. She handled kids with emotional problems so well. He also believes that having been adopted after foster care helped him to be a better father. It has inspired Thomas to “give something to my own children that I did not get from my biological parents.”

The most important gift he received as a child was love. “Love is everything,” says Thomas. “It goes a long way if you feel special — to know that someone actually wanted you.” Being wanted by someone like Mrs. Paul — someone with “the biggest heart I know” — helped him cope with having been abandoned as a baby. The bottom line for Thomas: “I feel … joy overcomes all of the pain in my life.”

It’s Up to the Supreme Court Now

Thomas is grateful to CSS for its unceasing support of Mrs. Paul and foster children like him. He remembers feeling special when CSS sent presents at Christmas. The attention “helped him to keep his mind off any of the hard times.” He adds that CSS staff visits and assessments always helped “get kids out of their darkness.”

Thomas thinks the possibility of CSS shutting down its foster care program is horrible. “I want other kids to have the opportunity that I did,” he says. “If they get shattered by situations that are not their fault, they should still have the chance to dream.”

Philadelphia’s gratuitous intolerance, and the gratuitous intolerance afoot elsewhere, is keeping CSS and its foster care parents from helping more of the city’s most vulnerable children to dream. More Wayne Thomases. More Thomas Pauls. The Supreme Court, it seems, may now be the only answer to their prayers.