A lesbian couple in Texas have filed a lawsuit against the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops and the U.S. government for allegedly barring the couple from becoming foster parents to a refugee child.
Fatma Marouf and Bryn Esplin, both professors at Texas A&M University, tried to foster a refugee child via the local affiliate of Catholic Charities in Fort Worth, the only Texas organization that partners with the federal government to assist such children.
The alleged discrimination occurred when Marouf and Esplin went for an interview and were allegedly told by Catholic Charities of Forth Worth’s chairperson of the board, Donna Springer, that the couple did not “mirror the holy family.”
The now-filed lawsuit names the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, along with the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, other federal agencies, and the leadership of each organization and agency. The Dallas Morning News reported:
“In the lawsuit, the couple states that Catholic Charities Fort Worth was aware Marouf was married prior to their interview but may not have known she was married to a woman. The couple said they were told they did not qualify just before the organization’s director of immigration services invited Marouf to give a presentation on her legal work at [Texas] A&M. Even though the women were turned away, Marouf continues to partner on community outreach events and workshops with the charity, Esplin said.”
“Catholic Charities Fort Worth denies the couple ever spoke with Springer — saying she ‘never had any contact with the couple’ — but acknowledged the then-director of child welfare services talked to them over the phone. The organization also denied allegations in the lawsuit that the couple was told the agency did not have any LGBT kids among the roughly 70 refugee children in its care at the time.
“‘We do not screen or otherwise ask the children we serve to self-identify if they are LGBT,’ said Katelin Cortney, Catholic Charities Fort Worth’s communications director. ‘We train our foster families to accept children from all cultures and walks of life so they can be as prepared as possible to welcome someone new into their home.'”
Esplin, who teaches bioethics at Texas A&M, said “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.”
Marouf, director of Immigrant Rights Center at Texas A&M’s School of Law, said that she and her partner “have in abundance” the love and support which traumatized refugee children so deeply require.
Jamie Gliksberg, a lawyer with Lambda Legal which is helping with the lawsuit, said the issue involved is religious liberty. He told the Star-Telegram that “allowing the [bishops] to turn away our clients is like our government endorsing one set of religious beliefs over another, which is unconstitutional.”
But Fort Worth’s Bishop Michael Olson and the Texas Catholic Conference disagree, claiming that Catholic Charities already complies with all federal regulations. Their statement, reported by The Dallas Morning News, said it would be “tragic” if the organization were unable to help refugee children because it wants to do so in a manner consistent with the Catholic faith. So far, neither the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops nor any federal agencies have commented on the lawsuit.
One of the key issues in the lawsuit is whether this matter is primarily about state law or federal law. Last year, Texas’ government approved a law which allows social service agencies to discriminate against LGBT people and other groups based on the organization’s religious beliefs. But the lawsuit suggested the issue is not a state but a federal matter:
“‘We are challenging federal funding to an organization that permits religiously-based discrimination,’ said Currey Cook, director of the Youth in Out-of-Home Care Project at Lambda Legal. ‘But while our case does not challenge the state [law], it goes to the heart of the issue in that equally unconstitutional law and demonstrates clearly the danger of such laws — harm to children as result of fewer homes available to them and harm to the loving families turned away.'”
“Millions of dollars in federal aid flow from the Office of Refugee Resettlement to the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops and Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Services, the two organizations responsible for overseeing the placement of unaccompanied minor children in suitable homes.
“Marouf and Esplin’s lawsuit says the federal government and these organizations violated the establishment, equal protection and due process clauses of the Constitution by imposing a religious test in the provision of child welfare services.”
Whether or not Catholic Charities is allowed to discriminate under state and/or federal law, such discrimination is neither moral nor prudent. It would be tragic if Catholic Charities Fort Worth followed the example of affiliate groups in Massachusetts, Illinois, and the District of Columbia by shutting down foster and adoption services because they could no longer exclude LGBT people. So many people are harmed by such actions: the LGBT potential parents, the children in need of loving homes, and the wider Church community who is scandalized by such injustice.
In the case of Fatma Marouf and Bryn Esplin, the moral answer is simple: church officials should prioritize what is best for refugee children who have already suffered so much in their young lives, rather than letting a fervor to exclude LGBT people be the officials’ primary motivation.