The College Park City Council voted 5-3 Tuesday to sign onto a brief opposing a taxpayer-supported religious organization’s right to refuse to consider same-sex couples as prospective foster parents.
More than 15 audience members — College Park residents and non-residents alike — attended the emotionally charged meeting. Among them were LGBTQ allies, supporters of faith organizations and others advocating for children in the foster care system.
The amicus brief, which will be filed in the state of New York, supports the city of Philadelphia’s position in Fulton v. City of Philadelphia, a case that reached the Supreme Court this year.
In 2018, the city of Philadelphia terminated its relationship with Catholic Social Services because it learned the agencies refused to consider same-sex couples suitable placements for foster children. CSS then requested an injunction to order the city to resume referring children to the agencies. Both district and circuit court levels denied the injunction.
The brief emphasizes that the city of Philadelphia has requirements for its contractors, including that contracted agencies may not discriminate on the basis of sexual orientation.
“[The case is] relevant to many of the city of College Park’s decisions and things that we strive to do here in the city,” said Kiaisha Barber, director of youth, family and senior services, who introduced the item to the council.
The city of College Park already has a charter that requires non-discrimination, as well as a code provision preventing discrimination in contracting, said Suellen Ferguson, the city attorney. All city contracts require contractors to verify that they don’t discriminate on the basis of race, origin, sexual orientation and other factors, she said.
Additionally, Ferguson said, if the city authorized a contractor to provide a service with taxpayer dollars and it decides to service only a specific group of people, it would conflict with the city’s charter.
Jeff Howard, a member of the LGTBQ community who said he works in adolescent development and currently serves on a National Working Group for access, equity and belonging, said he understood that the church has the right to discriminate on the basis of religion, but it cannot do so if they’re receiving tax dollars and turning away the very same people that gave it the tax dollars.
District 3 Councilman Robert Day agreed with Howard. Day, who said he is a practicing Catholic, would examine the issue based on the facts of the brief — that CSS is funded by taxpayer money — without taking religion and individual rights into account. Through that lens, it becomes a simple business transaction of supplying money and giving out services meant for everyone, he said.
“That is all of our community, that is all of our people, all faiths, all colors, races, faiths, beliefs, everything,” Day said. “It is the pot of money that is generated by the public.”
Still, many residents believed that the amicus brief infringed on their First Amendment rights, and they felt that the relationships between religious communities and the city would be damaged if the city supported the brief.
Plato Chen, a pastor at the Chinese Bible Church College Park, emphasized that the church’s role in the community is founded on the First Amendment, which allows them to freely and unapologetically exercise their faith. Supporting the amicus brief would violate that right, he said.
“This will be a dangerous precedent which will erode these First Amendment rights and will lead to a chilling, marginalizing and silencing effect on faith communities like us, both here, as well as across the country,” Chen said.
A resident of College Park, Shamila Hashim, worried that in an attempt to give more freedom to one group, the brief would infringe on the rights of another. Instead, Hashim suggested that the city not vote until they thoroughly investigate the situation.
Other residents, as well as District 1 Councilman Fazlul Kabir, believed it was a situation that the city shouldn’t weigh in on — at least until it had more information. For Kabir, the situation is too complex, and he worried that taking a side would divide the community more than unite it.
“Both LGBTQ and the faith groups are very, very important and very strong parts of our community. We all want both groups to live together here in peace with respect and dignity,” Kabir said.
District 2 Councilman P.J. Brennan spoke in steadfast support of the amicus brief. For Brennan, who adopted two children with his husband, the issue hits close to home. Even though Brennan acknowledges the right of religious institutions to discriminate based on their beliefs, he felt there was a line to be drawn.
“Any religious institution that begins to fight for the diminishment of my rights at the state level, I think is what is intolerable. That is where people cross the line and impose their faith on me and my family,” Brennan said.