Metro Weekly

Lesbian couple sues HHS for blocking them from serving as foster parents

Lawsuit argues that agencies cannot allow discrimination against same-sex couples if they accept taxpayer dollars

Bryn Esplin (left) and Fatma Marouf – Photo: Lambda Legal.

Lambda Legal has filed a federal lawsuit against the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services and the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops on behalf of a lesbian couple who was denied the opportunity to serve as foster parents for refugee children through a program run by a USCCB affiliate.

Fatma Marouf and Bryn Esplin, a pair of professors at Texas A&M University who have been married for nearly three years, say they were denied the opportunity to serve as foster parents because of their sexual orientation.

Marouf, a Muslim, and Esplin, a Mormon, have long wanted to have children and had even attempted to conceive through reproductive technology. Their attempts were unsuccessful, and the couple began considering other options, including adoption and foster care. After Marouf, the director of the Immigrant Rights Clinic at Texas A&M’s Law School, was invited by Catholic Charities of Fort Worth, a USCCB affiliate, to visit and learn about Catholic Charities’ work with unaccompanied refugee minors, the couple decided they wanted to become foster parents to a refugee child.

The couple sought more information from Catholic Charities about their foster care programs and discussed the next steps of becoming foster parents. In those emails, Esplin was clearly identified as Marouf’s spouse, but neither Catholic Charities of Fort Worth nor the USCCB registered any initial objection via email.

The pair arranged a telephone interview with Donna Springer, the chair of the Executive Committee of CCFW’s Board of Directors. But after finding out Marouf and Esplin were a lesbian couple, Springer told them they did not “qualify” to be foster parents, because their family structure did not “mirror the Holy Family.”

Marouf then asked about LGBTQ refugee children in CCFW’s care, to which Springer responded that none of the roughly 700 unaccompanied minors in their care identified as LGBTQ. Marouf then emailed the D.C.-based Office of Refugee Resettlement to complain that Catholic Charities has discriminated against her and her wife. ORR wrote back asking for the names of the officials they had talked to, but never called back with an update on the status of the couple’s complaint.

“Being denied the opportunity to foster a child because we don’t ‘mirror the Holy Family’ — clearly code for being a same-sex couple — was hurtful and insulting to us,” Esplin said in a statement. “More than that, though, insisting on such a narrow, religious view of what a family must look like deprives these children of a nurturing, supportive home.”

The couple enlisted the help of Lambda Legal to figure out their rights. On Tuesday, Lambda Legal filed suit in U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia against HHS, its Administration for Children and Families division, and ORR — and their respective directors — as well as USCCB and Catholic Charities of Fort Worth, alleging that the defendants had discriminated against them.

The couple’s legal team argues that because Catholic Charities, as an affiliate of USCCB, receives millions of dollars in federal grant funding from the Department of Health and Human Services through ORR to assist with the federal government’s Unaccompanied Refugee Minors Program and the Unaccompanied Alien Child Program, they should not be allowed to discriminate against same-sex couples, who were guaranteed equal treatment under the law by the Supreme Court’s decision to legalize marriage equality in 2015.

The lawsuit also claims that HHS and USCCB are violating the Establishment, Equal Protection, and Due Process Clauses of the U.S. Constitution by allowing USCCB to impose a religious test governing the provision of federal child welfare services.

“By working to ensure that none of the children for which they are responsible are placed in homes of same-sex spouses based on USCCB’s religious beliefs, USCCB and its sub-grantees not only discriminate against same-sex spouses, but also effectively erase the non-Catholic identities and beliefs of many of the unaccompanied refugee children for which they are responsible,” Lambda Legal writes in its complaint. “This conduct potentially increases those children’s alienation and vulnerability, while denying them access to loving homes that could serve them best — all at federal taxpayers’ expense.

“By working to ensure that none of the children for which they are responsible be placed in homes of same-sex spouses based on USCCB’s religious beliefs, USCCB and its sub-grantees also disserve and demean the youth for which they are responsible who are LGBT, stigmatizing them as less deserving and worthy of respect than others, and sending them the message that, when they grow up to form families of their own, they and their families will not have a right to equal treatment in the provision of government services,” the complaint adds.

“The federal government was on notice when it funded USCCB that this organization refuses to provide services to same-sex spouses at taxpayer expense,” Lambda Legal Senior Counsel Kenneth Upton said in a statement. “Our government should not be favoring certain religious beliefs over other — to the tune of millions of dollars — and turning people away from government services based on their failure to conform to the dictates of a particular religious belief. … USCCB’s sole criterion for placing the children in its care should be the best interests of the children.”

“Refugee children have been through enough trauma to last a lifetime,” Marouf added. “They need love, stability, and support, which Bryn and I have in abundance. But in discriminating against us, the agency put their religious views of LGBT people above what is best for the kids in their care.”

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John Riley is the local news reporter for Metro Weekly. He can be reached at jriley@metroweekly.com

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