Interfaith Coalition Formed to Oppose Discrimination by Religious Child Welfare Providers

Logo for the Interfaith Coalition on Children’s Rights.

The nonprofit litigation firm Children’s Rights has announced the creation of an Interfaith Coalition for Children’s Rights, which will be focused on fighting federal and state governmental efforts to permit discrimination on the part of faith-based child welfare providers.

The coalition, made up of religious and spiritual leaders around the country, “will oppose legislation and policy changes that would enshrine a ‘license to discriminate’ into law and ultimately deprive vulnerable children of safe, loving homes,” according to a statement issued by Children’s Rights.

“Our faith traditions teach us to treat everyone, especially those in need, with the dignity and respect we want for ourselves,” said Rev. Dr. Serene Jones, president of Union Theological Seminary, in the statement. “That’s why the Interfaith Coalition was formed: to focus on children in foster care.”

Since 2015, when the Supreme Court case Obergefell v. Hodges made same-sex marriage the law of the land, 10 states have passed laws allowing faith-based child welfare providers to discriminate against LGBTQ people, single people and anyone else who does not comport with the institutional religious beliefs of the organization. A number of other states permit that sort of discrimination as a matter of policy, but do not have laws on the books to guarantee that permission to faith-based providers.

The issue has jumped to the federal level recently. Last year, a bill to protect faith-based providers that wished to discriminate made it into the annual appropriations process (it was ultimately removed). And a lawsuit continues against federal grantees and subgrantees, filed by a lesbian couple trying to foster refugee children and were rejected because they “did not mirror the Holy Family.”

Meanwhile, a group of Republican legislators have written the Trump administration urging executive branch action to shield faith-based providers. There is a growing expectation that President Trump will soon act on some or all of their requests. The administration has already provided a waiver allowing federal funds for discriminatory providers in South Carolina.

Children’s Rights spokesman Daniel Kessel said the Interfaith Coalition’s early priority will be to harness opposition to any executive branch actions that roll back protection against discrimination. The coalition will also help build support for the Every Child Deserves a Family Act, which would prohibit any discriminatory exclusion of children among providers receiving any federal child welfare funds.

The law also includes the provision of a private right of action in federal court for any child experiencing such discrimination, and bans the use of federal funds for so-called conversion therapy, where changing a child’s sexual orientation or gender identity is viewed as a treatment strategy.

That bill has been introduced regularly since 2009, when it was first dropped by former Rep. Pete Stark (D-Calif.). It is currently sponsored by Rep. John Lewis (D-Ga.) and Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.).

Going forward, Kessel said, coalition members “will be called on to sign letters, participate in amicus briefs and mobilize grassroots action — though a particular litigation target is not on the table yet.”

Children’s Rights staff attorney Daniele Gerard will serve as the internal point person for the coalition.

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John Kelly
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John Kelly is editor-in-chief of The Chronicle of Social Change.