November 4, 2020
The Supreme Court will hear arguments in an important religious freedom case, Fulton v. City of Philadelphia, on Wednesday, November 4. As we have noted before, this case involves the critical subject of foster care.
If judges were to decide this case solely based on the evidence behind the value of religiously motivated foster care, it would be a unanimous decision in favor of religious organizations and families of faith.
Research suggests some important ways that religious groups and people of faith contribute to the care of children in foster care. Survey data indicate that Christians are three times as likely to consider fostering. An article in the Journal of Sociology and Social Welfare reported that foster parents “who became aware [of the need for foster parents] through churches or other religious organizations fostered for more years than did the average respondent.” The article notes:
One advantage of recruiting through churches and community organizations is that participants already are embedded in a social network that can provide additional information and support. Recruitment in this arena also facilitates an interactive process such that churches and community organizations can fulfill some of their service and support goals by aiding in the recruitment process.
Another study found that “faith/church support” was one of the top three factors foster parents reported as a factor facilitating successful fostering, with nearly 82% mentioning this as important.
The solicitor general of Nebraska recently noted that “a religious group in Arkansas known as The CALL is ‘the source of all foster homes’ in the state.”
A study of older foster youth found that older youth in foster care who attended church were less likely to engage in sexual behavior and use cigarettes, while religious belief was correlated with lower use of alcohol. Another study made a similar finding for use of illegal drugs among white foster youth. Finally, a study of African-American youth in foster care found that involvement with religious organizations “decreases the risk of delinquency.”
The most recent statistics from the Department of Health and Human Services indicate that more than 437,000 children were in foster care. A child welfare resource notes that 15 states saw a decline in the number of foster homes in recent years.
A particularly important part of the foster care system are churches and religious agencies.
These groups are motivated by their religious beliefs that they are charged by God to care for the poor and vulnerable, and many have long histories of providing these types of services. As the Becket Fund, the organization representing the foster parents in the Fulton Case, has explained: “For over 200 years religious groups have cared for children and helped them find loving homes—often well before governments got involved.”
In Pennsylvania, Catholic Social Services has been providing services to vulnerable families for more than 200 years. Catholic Charities of West Michigan, a religious nonprofit involved in litigation, has been providing services to families for 70 years.
Foster care is a unique legal institution meant to balance the weightiest considerations. On the one hand, children who are at risk of harm because of parental abuse or neglect need to be protected and provided for. At the same time, parents have a fundamental right to care for their children, and they should not be permanently excluded from a child’s life unless their unfitness puts the child at risk.
Foster care is meant to address these realities.
The role of religious groups in the foster system is critical. They recruit foster families, provide encouragement and support to those families and in some cases even contract with the state to place children in need of foster care with families. This is a good thing for children, based on the lower rates of risky or delinquent behavior among foster children connected with religion.
However it rules in the Fulton case, the Supreme Court should recognize the benefits that religion brings to children and society through foster care. It should also protect the right and responsibility of churches and religious organizations to improve the lives of foster children in a way that is consistent with their faith. Equality and nondiscrimination in America are ideas that should be inclusive enough to accommodate, rather than exclude, religious Americans and their institutions.
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