Fulton v. City of Philadelphia

Fulton v. City of Philadelphia is a case about whether government-funded foster care agencies have a “right” to discriminate based on their religious beliefs. The Supreme Court ruling could have broad implications beyond the foster care context.

Last Updated: November 10, 2020


In May 2018, Catholic Social Services (“CSS”), a faith-based foster care agency filed a lawsuit against the City of Philadelphia with whom it had a contract to provide public child welfare services.

Despite the nondiscrimination provision in the City’s contract with CSS (and all other contractors), CSS refused to license same-sex couples to be foster parents based on religious objections.

When the City told CSS that it had to comply with the nondiscrimination requirement or its contract would not be renewed, CSS sued the City, claiming that requiring CSS to abide by the generally applicable nondiscrimination requirement for contractors violated the free exercise of religion, even though CSS chooses to be a contractor and accept taxpayer funds to provide the public service of child welfare. The federal trial court and federal appeals court rejected CSS’s argument and ruled for the City, finding that CSS’s religious Free Exercise rights were not violated. CSS appealed to the United States Supreme Court, and in February 2020, the Court agreed to take the case. Oral argument is expected to be in the fall of 2020.

The Parties

  • Who brought the lawsuit (Plaintiff/Appellant/Petitioner): Catholic Social Services
  • Who the lawsuit is against (Defendant/Appellee/Respondent): City of Philadelphia
  • Other parties (“Intervenors”), represented by the ACLU, who support the City’s right to require all of its contracted foster care agencies to license all qualified families:


  • 05/17/2018: CSS sued the City of Philadelphia in the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania
  • 06/07/2018: CSS filed for a preliminary injunction, asking the Court to require the City to continue its contract with the City while the case is decided
  • 07/13/2018: District Court denied the preliminary injunction, ruling that CSS did not have a right to exclude same-sex couples
  • 07/16/2018: CSS filed a notice to appeal the District Court’s decision
  • 07/16/2018: CSS filed an Emergency Injunction with the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit, asking the Court to force the City to continue referring cases to CSS while the appeal is pending
  • 07/27/18: The Third Circuit denied the emergency injunction.
  • 07/31/2018: CSS filed an Emergency Application for Injunctive Relief with the U.S. Supreme Court, asking that Court to force the City to continue to refer cases to CSS during the appeal
  • 08/30/2018: U.S. Supreme Court denied the Emergency Application (with Justice Thomas, Alito, and Gorsuch stating they would have granted it)
  • 04/22/19: U.S Court of Appeals for the Third Court upheld the District Court’s opinion, ruling that the City is entitled to require taxpayer-funded child welfare agencies that it contracts with to abide by nondiscrimination requirements.
  • 07/22/19: CSS filed appeal with U.S. Supreme Court
  • 02/24/20: U.S. Supreme Court granted the appeal and will hear the case in the Fall of 2020
  • 08/20/20: Briefs by those supporting the City of Philadelphia were filed, including a brief from Family Equality (see below)
  • 11/04/20: US Supreme Court hears oral arguments. For a play-by-play, click here.

History of the Case

In March 2018, the City of Philadelphia learned that two of the agencies it contracted with to provide foster care services to children in the public child welfare system were refusing to license same-sex couples to be foster parents based on the agencies’ religious beliefs. The City’s contracts with the agencies incorporate the Philadelphia Fair Practices Ordinance, which prohibits discrimination on the basis of sex, sexual orientation, gender identity, and marital status.

When the City told the agencies that it would not renew their contracts unless they start abiding by its nondiscrimination requirements, one of the agencies agreed to stop discriminating. The other – Catholic Social Services (CSS) – refused to comply and sued the City. In the lawsuit, CSS claimed, among other things, that it had a First Amendment right to continue its taxpayer-funded contracted work even though it refused to license same-sex couples as foster parents in violation of the contract.

In a ruling on July 13, 2018, the district court held that CSS does not have a right to discriminate against prospective foster parents based on its religious beliefs. The district court found that it was permissible for the City to prohibit discrimination by its contract agencies, affirming the City’s interest in ensuring a diverse and broad pool of foster parents and caregivers and in ensuring that taxpaying citizens – whose taxpayer dollars fund these contracts – are not denied access to the services provided by the contracts.

CSS appealed to decision to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit. On April 22, 2019, the Third Circuit rejected CSS’ argument and affirmed the district court’s ruling. The Third Circuit explained that religious beliefs are always protected, but religiously motivated conduct does not get exemptions from general, neutrally applied legal requirements such as the City’s general nondiscrimination requirement.

Where We Are Now

CSS appealed the Third Circuit’s decision to the U.S. Supreme Court, and in February 2020, the Supreme Court agreed to hear the case. On November 4, 2020, the Court heard oral arguments. To learn more about how oral arguments went, click here.

The questions before the Court (as written by CSS) are:

  1. Whether free exercise plaintiffs can only succeed by proving a particular type of discrimination claim — namely that the government would allow the same conduct by someone who held different religious views — as two circuits have held, or whether courts must consider other evidence that a law is not neutral and generally applicable, as six circuits have held?
  2. Whether Employment Division v. Smith should be revisited?
  3. Whether a government violates the First Amendment by conditioning a religious agency’s ability to participate in the foster care system on taking actions and making statements that directly contradict the agency’s religious beliefs?

Briefs in the Supreme Court Case

  • The brief by Catholic Social Services (the Petitioner) was filed on May 27, 2020.
  • Briefs by those supporting CSS were due on June 3, 2020 (a total of 34 such briefs were filed).
  • The brief by the City of Philadelphia (the Respondent) is due by August 13, 2020.
  • Briefs by those supporting the City of Philadelphia were filed on August 20, 2020, including a brief from Family Equality (see below)

It is noteworthy that the Trump Administration’s Department of Justice filed a brief in support of the Catholic Social Services. In that brief, Solicitor General Noel Francisco says that “the United States has a substantial interest in the preservation of the free exercise of religion. It also has a substantial interest in the enforcement of rules prohibiting discrimination by government contractors.”

The framing of this statement of interest makes clear that the Trump Administration views its interest in prohibiting discrimination as a mere afterthought to its interest in preserving the free exercise of religion. The brief contends, contrary to the findings of fact at the trial court, that the Philadelphia’s nondiscrimination policy exhibits “hostility toward religion”.

This brief by the Trump Administration argues that child placing agencies should have a constitutional right to turn away people, including LGBTQ people and same-sex couples, if they fail to meet an agency’s religious litmus test.

What’s At Stake?

Many states and localities across the country that contract with private agencies to provide services in the public child welfare system have nondiscrimination requirements similar to the City of Philadelphia’s. Agencies voluntarily enter into these contracts and are paid taxpayer dollars to carry out the state’s duty to care for and provide homes for children whom the state has removed from their parents or guardians.

Allowing agencies to “opt out” of contractual requirements based upon their religious beliefs could have dire consequences for the 437,000 children in foster care across the country. There is a shortage of homes for these children, and allowing agencies to turn away qualified, loving families because they do not meet the agency’s religious test only exacerbates the problem.

Moreover, a broader decision holding that religious entities are constitutionally entitled to contract with the government but then refuse to comply with the parts of the contract to which they object would have a profound impact on all government contracting.

"The High Stakes in the Fulton Case" (Report Cover)

Learn more about what’s at stake in Fulton

Family Equality’s Role

On October 4, 2018, Family Equality filed a “friend of the court” (or amicus curiae) brief in federal appellate court to support the City of Philadelphia. Family Equality was joined in the brief by COLAGE, and was represented by our pro bono counsel Bryan Cave Leighton Paisner, LLP.

On August 20, 2020, Family Equality filed an amicus brief with the U.S. Supreme Court in support of the City of Philadelphia, joined by PFLAG National, and again represented by our pro bono counsel Bryan Cave Leighton Paisner, LLP.

Family Equality Fulton Amicus Brief Cover

Read the Family Equality Amicus Brief

Family Equality’s contribution to this case is our ability to capture the impact and harm of anti-LGBTQ discrimination through the voices of the people who experience it. Our brief presents the voices of LGBTQ adults who attest to the reality that agencies’ discrimination against same-sex couples delays the availability of homes to children who need them, leaves children in the system even though there is a family available to care for them, keeps siblings apart even when there is a family willing to keep them together, and deters qualified parents from fostering.

Our brief also shares the stories of the safe and loving homes that same-sex couples and LGBTQ individuals provide when discrimination does not get in the way, and it demonstrates the benefits to children in care when the pool of available foster parents reflects the diversity of the children in care and the breadth of their individual needs. For example, for some children in care who have experienced trauma, placement with a two-mom or two-dad family offers a safe haven to heal, and LGBTQ parents can provide uniquely supportive homes for the disproportionate number of LGBTQ youth in care.

Turning away families shrinks the pool of available home placements and leaves warm beds empty while children languish in less supportive care. And for those who age out of foster care without reunification or adoption, they are tragically left to not only begin adulthood on their own without the guidance, support, and stability of parents, but they are more likely to experience poverty, homelessness, incarceration, and early parenthood.