Sharonell Fulton, et al. v. City of Philadelphia

Becket Role:
Case Start Date:
May 16, 2018
Deciding Court:
U.S. Supreme Court
Original Court:
Eastern District of Pennsylvania
Supreme Court Status:
Cert Requested
Practice Area(s):

Case Snapshot

In March 2018, the City of Philadelphia put out an urgent call for 300 new foster families. Despite the desperate need for homes for the 6,000 children in Philadelphia’s foster care system, the city then abruptly barred Catholic Social Services, one of the most successful foster agencies in the city, from placing children in homes. The city's actions mean that foster homes are sitting empty and loving foster parents are unable to serve at-risk children, simply because city leaders disagree with Catholic Social Services' longstanding beliefs about marriage. If this discriminatory policy isn’t stopped, Catholic Social Services will be forced to close a ministry that has served Philadelphia children for over a century. In May 2018, Becket stepped in to protect children, families, and Catholic Social Services from the City of Philadelphia’s harmful actions.


On April 22, 2019, the Third Circuit denied Catholic Social Services’ request for a preliminary injunction. Becket has asked the Supreme Court to take up the case.

Case Summary

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Children, and a city, in crisis

Sharonell Fulton and Toni Simms-Busch are Philadelphia foster moms standing up for Catholic Social Services, the faith-based agency that brought each of their families together. Sharonell has fostered more than 40 children over 25 years. Toni is a former social worker who fostered two young brothers through Catholic Social Services and has now adopted them.

Catholic Social Services has served needy children and supported foster parents like Sharonell and Toni for over a century. The agency is known for the exceptional care and support it provides for foster families. According to the City of Philadelphia, “[a]t any given time, nearly 6,000 children and youth are in foster care in Philly.” That’s why the City of Philadelphia put out an urgent call for 300 more foster parents in March 2018. But days later, Philadelphia inexplicably prohibited Catholic Social Services from placing foster children in loving homes—solely because of the agency’s religious beliefs.

Top foster agency prevented from helping kids

On March 15, 2018, Philadelphia stopped allowing foster children to be placed with families who work with Catholic Social Services. The city is threatening to permanently terminate its contract with Catholic Social Services, unless Catholic Social Services abandons its longstanding religious beliefs and makes endorsements following the City’s beliefs about marriage. But no family has ever filed a complaint against Catholic Social Services for following its Catholic mission, and Catholic Social Services’ religious beliefs have never prevented a child from finding a home. Now, by cutting off Catholic Social Services, the city has made its foster care crisis even worse. Philadelphia has decided to prioritize political grandstanding over the needs of children.

Political points at kids’ expense

The city’s actions hurt children and families who need support. Loving homes remain empty because the city is preventing Catholic Social Services from doing what they do best—placing children with families. The city admitted that it has 250 children who need to move from group homes to loving families, yet it still refuses to place these children with families who work with Catholic Social Services.

In May 2018, Becket stepped in to represent children, families, and Catholic Social Services in their lawsuit against the City of Philadelphia. The city is looking to score political points, but if it stops working with foster care organizations simply because of their religious beliefs, the only thing it will accomplish is fewer homes for children who need them.

On June 5, 2018, Becket asked for a preliminary injunction to stop Philadelphia’s discriminatory policy and let Catholic Social Services place children with families. On July 13, 2018, the district court denied the request for a preliminary injunction, and Becket immediately appealed to the Third Circuit Court of Appeals.

On April 22, 2019, the Third Circuit denied Catholic Social Services’ request for a preliminary injunction. Becket has asked the Supreme Court to take up the case.

Importance to religious liberty

  • Individual freedom: Religious organizations must be free to follow their faith in all aspects, including in the workplace. The government discriminates against a religious group if it prevents them from providing services based on their religious beliefs.
  • Public square: Faith-based organizations serve their neighbors and provide benefits to the community when they are able to operate in the public square. Religion in the public square is not a threat, but rather a natural expression of a natural human impulse.