The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) conceded a legal case in early July by allowing a single lesbian to serve as a foster parent after several months of litigation. While LGBTQ+ advocates and the foster parent are excited with the result, questions remain as to whether the concession signals a wider inclusion of LGBTQ+ foster and adoptive parents at Catholic agencies or is a singular exception made under legal pressure.
As reported by the The Washington Post, Kelly Easter, a real estate agent in Nashville, was rejected as a foster applicant by Bethany Christian Services because the office was a subsidiary of the USCCB, which does not allow same-gender couples to foster children. Months after filing a lawsuit against the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services in October 2021, the USCCB wrote a letter to Bethany stating that their choice to bar a single lesbian applicant from applying to foster children was the result of a ‘misunderstanding’ in their position.
Chieko Noguchi, a USCCB spokesperson, argued in an email to the National Catholic Reporter that the case was driven by the subsidiary organization failing to interpret the Catholic bishops’ policies correctly. Noguchi said that the bishops’ concession in the case of Kelly Easter did not constitute a change in position:
“‘[This] is neither a “change” in the USCCB’s position, nor a change in Church teaching,’ said Noguchi, who also told NCR by email that Catholic teaching ‘does not prohibit the placement of foster children with a single person irrespective of that person’s sexual orientation.'”
LGBTQ+ advocates are less convinced that the USCCB case was simply driven by misunderstanding given that it took several months for the Conference to notify Bethany that they had made a mistake, and the USCCB was prompted to do so under legal pressure. Kenneth Upton, an attorney for Americans United for Separation of Church and State, argued that the USCCB’s statement does not hold up to critical scrutiny. Upton said:
“‘Bethany was very certain that their contract with the Catholic bishops prevented them from placing a foster child with Kelly…It certainly wasn’t a misunderstanding until [the Department of Justice] got involved in the case and tried to figure out what was going on.'”
Upton also questioned the extent of the acceptance of queer foster parents by Catholic agencies:
“‘There is this unanswered question: So if she gets married, are you going to turn around and take the child away and stop working with her?…I don’t know what the USCCB’s answer would be to that.'”
Francis DeBernardo, the executive director of New Ways Ministry, observed that the USCCB’s public acceptance of a single lesbian parent is a significant step forward:
“‘Maybe it isn’t a change in policy, but finally they’ve at least stated that on the record. I don’t recall that they’ve ever stated that publicly. To me, that’s an important step and I think it helps bishops and agency directors have a precedent to fall back on when they do want to allow single gay and lesbian parents to adopt.'”
Marianne Duddy-Burke, executive director of DignityUSA, who was denied a foster parenting application by Catholic Charities of Boston two decades ago, argued that the USCCB will need to re-approach the way they discuss queer people, stating:
“‘Church officials are really going to have to grapple with their history of suggesting that gay people are dangerous to kids, which underlies so much of their messaging.'”
Duddy-Burke observed that clerical leaders including Pope Francis have a pattern of suggesting that the superior parenting arrangement is a family structure headed by an opposite-sex couple, and that Easter’s legal battle to serve as a foster parent with a Catholic agency represents a greater struggle for the recognition of queer parents in the church.
Whether Easter’s legal victory signals movement toward tolerance of queer couples serving as adoptive or foster parents under the USCCB remains unclear. As the church moves through the process of synodality, institutional leaders have the opportunity to listen to the concerns of queer Catholics, and enfranchise LGBTQ+ parents within official ministries of the church.
–Andru Zodrow (he/him), New Ways Ministry, August 15, 2022