Ask Lambda Legal: Faith-Based Foster Care Agencies


By Susan Sommer, Director of Constitutional Litigation

Dear Ask Lambda Legal,

My partner and I live in Illinois and are in a civil union. We are thinking about becoming foster parents, but have heard about problems with certain child welfare agencies. Should we be concerned?

Congratulations! 2011 saw advances for same-sex couples in Illinois, as well as in New York, Hawaii, Delaware and Rhode Island. Marriage equality prevailed in New York, while civil unions were signed into law in the other four states – each new law provides hundreds of rights and responsibilities for same-sex couples. For those of you who are hoping to raise children, these laws can provide important legal protections as your family grows.

Illinois has recently received national attention because of a case brought by Catholic Charities, a faith-based social service organization which, until recently, received state funds to provide foster care and adoption services for children. When the civil union law went into effect, Catholic Charities asserted that, on religious grounds, it would not provide foster care placement services to couples in civil unions, or to other unmarried or same-sex couples. State and federal law prohibits an organization that receives government funds and contracts to provide government services from using religious beliefs to dictate to whom it will provide those services. Illinois rightly declined to provide tax dollars to an agency that denies loving homes to children in government foster care based on the agency’s discriminatory policies.  An Illinois court upheld the government’s decision, in a case in which Lambda Legal and child welfare organizations filed a friend-of-the-court brief.

In recent years, Catholic Charities agencies in Boston and the District of Columbia decided to stop providing foster care and adoption services rather than comply with non-discrimination laws and professional child welfare standards by making placements with same-sex couples.  However, these examples were the exception, not the rule.  Most social service agencies — whether faith-based or not — in states that accord legal recognition to same-sex couples’ relationships, follow state non-discrimination requirements.

When the state removes children from their original homes and places them in foster care, it’s often because of situations involving abuse or neglect. These children can then languish for years in state care, in group or foster homes.  The overwhelming consensus among social science and child welfare experts is that lesbian and gay adults make fit parents and are an important resource for children in foster care. When an agency charged with finding children stable homes shrinks the pool of prospective foster and adoptive parents based on false beliefs that same-sex couples aren’t good parents, it does unnecessary harm to these children.   It also sends a dangerous, stigmatizing message to the many LGBT young people in foster care, that these youth will never be fit to parent children of their own.  Children in the foster care system deserve every chance of finding stable, loving homes.

In Illinois, and across the country, a number of social service agencies have a history of working with same-sex couples looking to become foster parents. If you have a legal question or need legal assistance please visit

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