Bryn Esplin, left, and her wife, Fatma Marouf, of Fort Worth, pictured here with Lambda Legal Staff Attorney Jamie Gliksberg, right, announced this week they are suing the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services and the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops after being denied the chance to apply as foster parents for a refugee child. (Tammye Nash/Dallas Voice)

When a Catholic agency administering a federal foster care program for refugee children refused to even let them apply as foster parents, Esplin and Marouf decided to take action

Tammye Nash | Managing Editor
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Lambda Legal, acting on behalf of a Fort Worth lesbian couple denied the chance to even apply as foster parents for refugee children, this week filed a federal lawsuit against the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services and the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, charging the USCCB with illegal discrimination.

The USCCB receives millions of dollars in grant funding from HHS, through the Office of Refugee Resettlement, to assist with the federal Unaccompanied Refugee Minors Program and the Unaccompanied Alien Child Program. These programs are responsible for identifying eligible children in need of services and then providing services, including placement in homes “that serve their best interests,” according to a Lambda Legal press release.

The grant funds, Lambda Legal noted, are taxpayer dollars.

Fatma Marouf, a professor of law and director of Texas A&M’s Immigrant Rights Clinic, and Bryn Esplin, an assistant professor of bioethics at Texas A&M, contacted the USCCB’s affiliate in Fort Worth to apply as foster parents. But before they could even apply, Marouf said, they were told they were ineligible because they do not “mirror the holy family.”

Marouf said that because of her work as director of Texas A&M’s Immigrant Rights Clinic, administrators at the Fort Worth USCCB affiliate invited her to visit and learn about their work with unaccompanied refugee children — many of which come from countries in the Middle East. She said that when she heard about the program, she felt that her background — she is the child of immigrant parents of Turkish and Egyptian heritage — put her and her wife in a unique position to “offer a loving, culturally sensitive home” to the refugee children.

Marouf said at the press conference Tuesday, Feb. 20 in Fort Worth that she and Esplin had talked about adoption and foster parenting before, but when they learned about a year ago about the program for refugee children, she said, it seemed like a perfect fit.

“We both love kids,” Marouf said, adding that there are a large number of refugee children in need of foster or adoptive homes. These children are “uniquely vulnerable. (and) I felt I understood something about their situation.”

But when Maroud and Esplin contacted the Catholic agency to start the foster parent licensing program, noting in their first interview, via telephone, that they are a married same-sex couple, the agency’s director of international foster care told them they would not be allowed to even apply because they did not “mirror the holy family.”

When Marouf pressed her on what would happen to those among the refugee children who were LGBT, the director declared that none of the children in their care — about 700 — were LGBT.

That same day, Marouf sent an email to the Office of Refugee Resettlement, notifying that agency that the USCCB’s Fort Worth affiliate was discriminating against her and Esplin because they were a lesbian couple. It took two months for the ORR to respond to her email, and then they only asked for the name of the person who had told them they couldn’t apply. Marouf sent them that information but still has received no further response.

Marouf said she and her wife were “both completely shocked” by the blatant discrimination. “I really didn’t think, since they get federal funds and this is a federal program, that they would be able to use their religious beliefs to discriminate against us. … Refugee children have been through enough trauma to last them a lifetime. They need love and stability, which we have in abundance. In discriminating against us, the agency put their religious views above the best interest of the children.”

Esplin noted that they are also an interfaith couple, but that the Catholic agency’s representative confirmed that they were rejected because they are lesbians.

“This was not only deeply disappointing to us, but it denies children an opportunity to have a loving home,” Esplin said during the press conference. “We knew we wanted to do something, not just on behalf of us, but on behalf of other loving, worthy couples, and especially on behalf of the hundreds of children who are waiting for homes.”

While there are other options available to the couple to foster and/or adopt a child, the federally-funded program operated by USCCB “is the only game in town” through which they could foster or adopt one of the refugee children, Lambda Legal Senior Counsel Kenneth D. Upton said Tuesday. He noted that even though there is no federal law specifically prohibiting discrimination against LGBT people, “there are regulations within HHS that do not allow the agency to discriminate.”

Using religious beliefs to discriminate against a same-sex couple, he stressed, “violates the rules that HHS has to follow.”

Upton said there is some concern that HHS might use proposed rules that would allow medical professionals to cite their religious freedom to refuse treatment to LGBT people and others to try and validate USCCB’s discrimination against Marouf and Esplin. But, he said, those rules have not yet been approved, and Lambda Legal and other civil rights organizations are speaking against them during the public comment review period.

The case was filed Tuesday morning in the United States District Court for the District of Columbia.

Upton said that since it does not involved an emergency situation, it will likely take several months before any action is taken.