In an unprecedented move, the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) has granted an exception for an unmarried lesbian applicant to serve as a foster parent through a program administered by a Catholic organization. After months of litigation, the Conference has stated that it no longer has a religious objection to housing foster children in single-parent lesbian or gay households, according to Baptist News Global.
In March 2021, Kelly Easter, a Nashville-area realtor, applied to foster an unaccompanied child seeking asylum in the United States through the federal Department of Health and Human Services (HHS). That agency contracts with Bethany Christian Services to provide such care, however, because the USCCB also partners with Bethany Christian Services, it did not permit her to provide a home to a child in need because of her lesbian identity.
Easter, with the help of Americans United for Separation of Church and State and Lambda Legal, filed a lawsuit against HHS alleging that she was being denied participation in a federal program due to the religious convictions of an organization receiving government funding. In Fulton v. City of Philadelphia, the U.S. Supreme Court limited the rights of queer potential parents to challenge LGBTQ-negative foster care policies if there is another similar resource readily available. But Easter lived in an area with only a single participating program.
While the case had the potential to similarly work its way to the Supreme Court, the USCCB surprised the legal community:
“Eight months later, the Conference of Catholic Bishops told the federal government it no longer has a religious objection to working with a single lesbian foster parent.”
The USCCB, which is not known for compromising or reversing position in court, opened the door for single queer parents to care for children in the foster care system. While the Conference did not opt to publicize the change, the official change of policy as recorded in court cements the ability of queer foster parents to work with Catholic agencies to support young people.
Easter offered a positive response in a Lambda Legal statement:
“Providing a loving, nurturing home for a refugee child is my desire. All qualified individuals, regardless of their sexual orientation, should be encouraged to adopt, so these children may receive the best possible chance at finding a stable home. This is what I’ve wanted all along.”
While Easter was excited to have secured a personal legal victory, she noted that there is still a great deal of work to be done. In a statement on Easter’s case, Americans United and Lambda Legal referenced the case Marouf v. HHS, in which a gay couple was denied application for foster parenting by a USCCB-affiliated agency:
“USCCB’s policy may now permit single LGBTQ parents to foster children, but the agency still discriminates against married same-sex couples like Fatma Marouf and Bryn Esplin. The couple was rejected by a USCCB sub-grantee in Texas because, as a married same-sex couple, they didn’t ‘mirror the Holy Family’ as the agency requires.”
Easter’s advocacy, as well as the willingness of the USCCB to compromise, has created new opportunities for queer people to heed Christ’s call to care for the marginalized. While more dialogue between LGBTQ+ Catholics and the USCCB is necessary, queer people can celebrate a small, but significant, step forward by the Conference.
—Andru Zodrow (he/him), New Ways Ministry, July 13, 2022