Any moment now the Supreme Court could issue a decision that would permit taxpayer-funded government programs to turn people away because they are Jewish, Muslim, Mormon, or otherwise do not meet a government contractor’s religious requirements.
In Fulton v. City of Philadelphia, a taxpayer-funded foster care agency, Catholic Social Services (CSS), asked the court to rule that it has a constitutional right to opt out of the city’s non-discrimination requirement that applies to all foster care agencies and turn away prospective foster families headed by same-sex couples. CSS says because it has a religious objection to certifying same-sex couples as foster parents, the right to religious liberty entitles it to discriminate while providing this government service.
If the court agrees with CSS, those most directly affected will be children in foster care — wards of the government — who deserve care from all families who meet child welfare standards. The stakes are also high for LGBTQ+ families, who could face discrimination not only by foster care agencies but in all sorts of other contexts should the court rule that non-discrimination requirements cannot be enforced against discrimination that is religiously motivated.
These issues are of profound concern for many people of faith, including Reform Jews. The Torah’s repeated command to care for the widow and orphan teaches us to care for the most vulnerable among us, who include children in foster care. And we understand the Torah’s teaching in Genesis that God creates human beings “B’tzelem Elohim” (in the image of God) as embracing a broad, inclusive community, including LGBTQ+ people. As Rabbi Hilly Haber put it, “[o]ur sages hold before us a vision of a broad, inclusive community, one which powerfully links together the love of God and the loving work of human beings.” For many Reform Jews and other religious communities, LGBTQ+ equality is a critical expression of our belief in the dignity and worth of all people and, thus, a fundamental tenet of our faith.
But in addition to these consequences, what those seeking religious exemptions from non-discrimination laws fail to reckon with is the fact that the very rule they are asking for would jeopardize religious liberty by authorizing discrimination against people because of their faith. Non-discrimination laws also protect against discrimination based on religion, or lack thereof. The Jewish community, as well as Catholics, Mormons, Muslims, and other minority faith communities, have depended on these protections to overcome histories of religious intolerance and achieve full participation in society.
The concern about the implications for discrimination against people because of their faith are not hypothetical. CSS has a religious objection to accepting same-sex couples, but agencies elsewhere have religious objections to accepting foster families that do not share their faith. For instance, the largest taxpayer-funded foster care agency in South Carolina accepts only evangelical Protestant Christian families and has turned away Catholic and Jewish families.
The arc of American Jewish history reminds us there was a time when the Jewish community was explicitly told “Jews Need Not Apply.” This painful history is shared by other minority faith communities. In the 21st century, no religious minority — or any community — should be told they are not welcome, especially when seeking to participate in taxpayer-funded government programs.
Congregation Rodeph Shalom of Philadelphia’s community service to its neighbors in need is in part federally funded and facilitated in partnership with Catholic and other faith groups. There remains a critical role for faith organizations to partner with one another and with the government for the good of the community. But when we provide these public services, we understand we must provide them to all who are eligible.
Philadelphia, along with cities and states across the country, ought to be permitted to remain steadfast in enforcing their non-discrimination policies for publicly funded foster care programs, and all government programs. This is not because civil rights ought to eclipse religious liberty, but because civil rights encompass religious liberty. As Americans, let us not falsely pit one against the other.
Rabbi Jill Maderer is the senior rabbi at Congregation Rodeph Shalom in Philadelphia, one of the nation’s oldest synagogues, dating back to 1795.