Catholics halt adoption, foster care programs in Greensburg, Pittsburgh over state rule |

Catholics halt adoption, foster care programs in Greensburg, Pittsburgh over state rule

Stephen Huba
Jason Cato | Tribune-Review

Pennsylvania’s Catholic dioceses are challenging a recent state policy that has essentially put them out of the adoption and foster care business.

The Diocese of Greensburg recently announced that its Catholic Charities agency was closing its adoption and foster care program after 65 years because the state’s nondiscrimination policy added sexual orientation and gender identity as protected categories.

The Greensburg diocese, along with Catholic Charities of the Archdiocese of Philadelphia and Catholic Charities Counseling and Adoption Services of the Diocese of Erie, sought a religious exemption from the policy in 2018. They were denied.

The Pennsylvania Department of Human Services, which oversees the state’s adoption and foster care system, says it cannot countenance discrimination “in any form against any group of Pennsylvanians.” The dioceses say the policy is unnecessarily hostile to faith-based groups that hold to traditional beliefs about marriage.

“They were looking for a problem, and they shut us down,” said Eric Failing, executive director of the Pennsylvania Catholic Conference.

Catholic adoption agencies, as a rule, do not place children with same-sex couples, based on the church’s teaching that marriage is a conjugal union between one man and one woman, Failing said.

“We cannot participate in a program that will not allow us to exercise our deeply held religious beliefs in our agency,” said Jerry Zufelt, spokesman for the Greensburg diocese.

Greensburg’s decision to close its adoption and foster care program affects not only the four counties in the diocese but also the six counties of the Diocese of Pittsburgh. Greensburg had provided adoption services for the Pittsburgh diocese since December 2014.

Since 2015, Greensburg Catholic Charities facilitated 167 adoption and foster care placements for both dioceses through its state contract, Zufelt said. It also handled 158 adoption and foster care cases outside the state system, through a Harrisburg-based program known as Women in Need. Those, too, will cease.

The PCC, which represents the state’s eight Roman Catholic dioceses, sent a letter to Human Services Secretary Teresa Miller asking for the state to reconsider its decision on the three Catholic adoption agencies.

The four-page letter dated Nov. 12 calls the state’s action “ultra vires,” or lacking any legal authority, and reiterates the agencies’ request for a religious accommodation. The letter also cites a new proposed rule by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services that says faith-based agencies seeking to operate consistent with their beliefs cannot be denied federal grants.

It is unclear whether the proposed rule would give any relief to the Pennsylvania dioceses, Failing said.

He said he is unaware of any cases involving same-sex couples seeking, or being denied, adoption services from a Catholic agency. He noted that Catholic agencies also do not do placements with single individuals.

“By and large, we always try to find a family unit to place a child with,” he said. “There’s nothing wrong with a child being placed in a family of a man and a woman.”

The controversy that is playing out statewide began in Philadelphia in March 2018, when the city put out a call for 300 new foster families. Weeks later, it suspended all foster care referrals to Catholic Social Services of the Archdiocese of Philadelphia.

Catholic Social Services is now suing the city of Philadelphia. In court filings, the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty, which is representing the archdiocese, noted that Catholic Social Services would have referred a same-sex couple to one of 29 other foster care agencies in Philadelphia.

“This is a purely hypothetical question, however, as no same-sex couple has ever approached Catholic (Social Services) seeking its written endorsement to become foster parents. Nor is there any evidence that Catholic’s religious beliefs stopped, or even discouraged, anyone from becoming a foster parent,” Becket said.

Later in 2018, private adoption agencies in the Statewide Adoption and Permanency Network, or SWAN, were asked to sign a new two-year contract that included the nondiscrimination clause on sexual orientation and gender identity. The clause was added pursuant to an executive order issued by Gov. Tom Wolf in 2016.

With the exception of the three Catholic agencies, all 78 SWAN affiliate agencies returned signed contracts. Of the 78 agencies, 21 are considered faith-based organizations.

The Catholic agencies instead submitted modified contracts “that attempted to nullify the nondiscrimination provision with a religious accommodation,” DHS spokeswoman Erin James said. “(The state) does not support allowing any SWAN affiliate to change the language of their contract for any reason, as all affiliates are held to the same standards and same contractual language.”

On July 1, 2018, the three Catholic agencies were placed on hold status, and referrals to them ceased. Last month, the three agencies were deactivated as SWAN affiliates, James said.

James said religious beliefs were not considered a sufficient basis for an exemption from the state’s nondiscrimination policy. She added: “[DHS] is not aware of any complaints or cases of discrimination involving these agencies.”

Prior to the state’s decision, 11 Republican lawmakers from central Pennsylvania attempted to intervene by writing a letter to Secretary Miller. In the letter, they said the new nondiscrimination clause would likely place a substantial burden on faith-based agencies by forcing them to choose between their religious beliefs and participation in the SWAN program.

“Putting aside the very serious religious liberty issues at play, it is also clear that this new language contrasts (with) existing law and will result in costly legal challenges for the commonwealth,” the lawmakers said.

The letter noted that the Pennsylvania Human Relations Act prohibits discrimination on the basis of race, color, creed, ancestry, age, sex, national origin and non-job-related handicap or disability, but does not include sexual orientation or gender identity as protected categories.

“Please keep in mind that for faith-based adoption organizations, this issue is critical and will put programs that are genuinely changing the lives of children and families in Pennsylvania at risk of closure,” the lawmakers said.

So far, existing SWAN affiliates seem to be handling the increased caseload and have not reported any capacity issues, James said.

Although the state’s decision affects the dioceses of Greensburg and Erie and the Archdiocese of Philadelphia, Catholic Charities of the Diocese of Harrisburg is still an adoption provider for the state under the SWAN program. Another Catholic agency, St. Joseph’s Center of Scranton, also is listed as a SWAN contractor.

Chuck Johnson, president of the Washington, D.C.-based National Council for Adoption, said the need for foster care and adoptive families is greater than ever — such that no qualified providers should be eliminated.

It’s all hands on deck, he said.

“The pluralistic system that’s been in place has worked in the sense that faith-based agencies have done their thing and secular agencies have done their thing,” Johnson said. “Faith-based agencies have an important role to play, and to eliminate them is to place ideology over children.”

Stephen Huba is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Stephen at 724-850-1280, [email protected] or via Twitter .

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