For many commentators, Fulton v. City of Philadelphia seemed merely another salvo in our country’s unceasing culture wars — a zero-sum conflict in which only one side can win. I’d argue just the opposite. In a moment when society seems to be pulling apart, the Supreme Court ruling points to a future in which Americans of sharply differing convictions still labor together for the common good.
In 2018, Philadelphia ordered two Christian foster care agencies to start placing children with same-sex and unmarried couples or withdraw from service. One agency, Catholic Social Services (CSS), rejected both options. Instead, it challenged the city’s demands in court.
With a little grace, one can see good intention on both sides of the conflict. The city wanted to protect LGBTQ+ individuals and cohabitating couples from exclusion. It sought to guarantee welcome for all people willing to foster or adopt. Likewise, CSS desired to be faithful to its age-old Christian commitments. They found in Scripture both a clarion call to serve the most vulnerable and a compelling vision for human sexuality, and they did not wish to forsake either.
For many years, these diverse values had largely co-existed in Philadelphia. More than two dozen agencies across the city gladly placed children in cohabitating and same-sex households. According to court records, no individuals were ever denied services. Meanwhile, CSS and one other agency specialized in recruiting and caring for families inspired by their faith to foster and adopt. These wide-ranging agencies did not always see eye to eye, but they worked side by side for children in the foster system.
In a time of rising tribalism, however, this arrangement was bound to be challenged. The gravity of our day is centrifugal, pulling outward and apart. It tears fibers that once held us together, both consensus and compromise. People and organizations that previously gathered around a common table — despite differing opinions — increasingly retreat to far corners of the room, plotting for self-defense rather than the common good.
In Fulton, the court broke sharply with this gravity. It directed the City of Philadelphia and its diverse partner agencies back to a common table, insisting that they find a way to join again for the good of children.
In doing this, the court was not diminishing the deep differences of belief at issue. For devout Christians, the Bible’s vision for sexuality — including fidelity within marriage and sexual restraint outside of it — protects the most vulnerable and contributes to the well-being of all people, particularly children. They also see irreplaceable benefit in the unique gifts of both father and mother. Meanwhile, LGBTQ+ advocates long for every person to experience affirmation and belonging. They sense in debates over sexuality not merely disagreement, but personal rejection.
The court understood these conflicts. Yet it did not conclude that contrasting beliefs needed to end in a winner-take-all victory. Instead, it cast a new metaphor for our cultural disagreements. Fulton holds no hint of the “war” framework, in which one side must conquer and the other be vanquished. Rather, what emerged could be said to look much like a holiday meal with extended family. There may be awkward relatives at the table, perhaps even some we find hard to endure. But still we have reason to come together. We gather for something larger than ourselves and, when we do, we most always find ourselves glad for having done so.
America’s public life at its best has always reflected this vision. It is pluralism, in which people of different backgrounds and beliefs interact respectfully and even work together in the public square. As the court found, this pluralism within government programs is not only required by the Constitution, but also essential for the good of children in foster care.
Why? Because the 400,000+ children in the U.S. foster system today need more, not less. They’ve tasted more pain than people should in a lifetime. Yet often the public systems designed to care for them have anything but enough. These girls and boys need more good agencies working on their behalf, more welcoming homes and more support for foster, adoptive and biological families. Philadelphia’s exclusion of CSS reduced this supply. Fulton reversed that, maximizing the breadth and diversity of the social safety net in foster care and beyond.
Ironically, studies suggest that devout Christians and LGBTQ+ individuals are both markedly more willing than average Americans to welcome foster youth. Might these two communities remain committed to their deepest values while also working respectfully alongside one another for the good of children? Fulton’s answer is an unequivocal, “Yes.”
States, counties and cities now have the immense opportunity to cultivate this vision — protecting pluralism where it now exists and building where it does not.
On the one hand — and consistent with current law in every state — those overseeing foster systems bear the responsibility to ensure a clear, dignified pathway for any person willing to foster or adopt. That includes the presence of at least one readily-accessible agency or government office in every region that is well-equipped to welcome and support any qualified applicant. If this is lacking in any place, government must create it.
At the same time — consistent with Fulton and other rulings and laws — government must also ensure that agencies and individuals inspired by their faith to serve are welcomed as partners without needing to violate their deeply held convictions. Reasonable compromises can help accommodate divergent views, such as referral relationships between traditional religious agencies and agencies that specialize in serving the LGBTQ+ community.
To be clear, these policies do not require that the many diverse partners in a local foster system agree on every point, much less become replicas of one another. That, in fact, would leave the safety net poorer, narrower and less diverse. Civility, not uniformity, is essential to a vibrant civic life.
All of this offers our fractured nation a way forward. While the Fulton ruling itself is limited in scope, it delivers a sweeping message. Nine judges from across the political spectrum came together to form it, suggesting that many of the fierce divisions of our day are not as intractable as they appear. The court’s unanimous declaration reminds that people and organizations of differing convictions can still work respectfully alongside one another, for the good of children and much more. As they do, they may even become friends — or at least awkward relatives around a common table.
After all, one need not approve of everything a person thinks or does to love them. When that happens, everyone wins — especially the children who need it most.