Lesbian Couple Sues Trump Admin. After Being Rejected as Foster Parents for Refugee Kids

Fatma Marouf (L) and Bryn Esplin (R)
Fatma Marouf (L) and Bryn Esplin (R) | (Screenshot: Lambda Legal)

A married lesbian couple in Texas is suing the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops and the Trump administration after they were denied the opportunity to serve as foster parents for refugee children.

The lawsuit was filed Tuesday by the national LGBT civil rights group the Lambda Legal Defense and Education Fund on behalf of 41-year-old Fatma Marouf and 33-year-old Bryn Esplin, both of whom teach at Texas A&M University.

The women claim that they expressed interest with Catholic Charities of Fort Worth, a sub-grantee of USCCB, in becoming foster parents for unaccompanied refugee children last year.

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Upon talking with Donna Springer, who is on CCFW's Board of Directors, last February, the couple said they were told that foster parents must "mirror the holy family."

When the couple made clear that they were a same-sex couple, Springer allegedly told them that they did not "qualify" to be foster parents under the USCCB system.

The lawsuit explains that Marouf had previously worked alongside CCFW as an immigration advocate in the past and has even been thanked by CCFW officials for her work.

"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," the lawsuit alleges. "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."

USCCB receives millions of dollars in grants every year from the federal government that it disburses to groups across the country to help resettle unaccompanied refugee minors and alien children.

According to USCCB, Catholic Charities ensures that the children they place in homes "enjoy the advantage of having a mother and a father who are married."

Ryan Anderson, a senior fellow at The Heritage Foundation and a conservative religious freedom advocate, argued in a tweet that Catholic agencies should be allowed to carry their religious beliefs on marriage even as they use government funds to help children.

"Yes, Catholic foster care agencies should be free to help children in need according to Catholic beliefs, and according to the best social science," Anderson tweeted. "[A]nd according to reality: This child, like all children, deserves a mom and a dad."

The USCCB has not yet offered a public statement on the lawsuit.

Catholic Charities has been pressured heavily over the last decade-plus to capitulate its stance on marriage, sexuality and family.

As a USCCB fact sheet notes, Catholic Charities agencies across the country have been forced to choose between violating the Catholic teachings on marriage or closing their doors.

In 2006, Catholic Charities in Boston was forced to halt its adoption services after it was ordered to obey a state law barring "sexual orientation discrimination."

In 2011, Catholic Charities affiliates in Illinois closed down rather than complying with a rule that would have required them to place children with same-sex couples if they wanted to receive state funding.

Catholic Charities in Washington, D.C., and San Francisco have suffered similar fates. 

In addition to naming the USCCB, the lawsuit also lists the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, its Office of Refugee Resettlement and its Administration for Children and Families as defendants in the lawsuit.

HHS is the department that awards USCCB the federal funding for its Unaccompanied Refugee Minor and Unaccompanied Alien Children programs through its Office of Refugee Resettlement.

Marouf initially complained about CCFW's rejection in February 2017 in an email she sent to the Office of Refugee Resettlement, saying that CCFW had discriminated against her and her spouse.

According to the lawsuit, her concern was never adequately addressed. Although she received an email two months later from the agency asking her for names of people she dealt with at CCFW, she never heard anything more about the situation.

"Federal Defendants are required to administer grants and cooperative agreements in a manner so as to ensure that federal funding is expended, and associated federal programs are implemented, in accordance with the constitutional guarantees of equality and liberty and the strictures of the Establishment Clause, in addition to applicable statutory and regulatory requirements, including but not limited to those prohibiting discrimination," the lawsuit explains.

The lawsuit asks for two types of injunctive relief.

The first would require HHS to ensure USCCB allow the couple to become foster parents through the refugee program.

The second injunction request would prohibit the HHS from "failing to implement adequate safeguards against the use of religious or other criteria to exclude foster or adoptive parent applicants based on their sexual orientation or sex or the same-sex character of their marriage" in the administration of the federal refugee foster program.

The lawsuit also seeks monetary damages and legal fees for the couple.

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