Catholic Charities of Fort Worth (CCFW), a Texas faith-based organization that helps find foster care placements for refugee children, recently sought out the help of Fatma Marouf, a 41-year-old law professor who heads up the Immigrant Rights Clinic at Texas A&M University.
While her professional assistance was desired, Catholic Charities later refused to license her as a foster parent because she is married to a woman. That decision has landed the group in court as a defendant alongside another faith-based organization and the U.S. government.
Marouf and her wife, Bryn Esplin, represented by Lambda Legal, filed a lawsuit last week in the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia against the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) and the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS).
Marouf and Esplin sought to become foster parents of children in the United States through the federal Unaccompanied Refugee Minors (URM) program. Started in the 1980s, the program serves children who are refugees, have gained asylum or Special Immigrant Juvenile Status or who are documented victims of human trafficking.
The program is overseen by the Office of Refugee Resettlement at the Department of Health and Human Services. The Conference of Catholic Bishops is one of the two federal grantees charged with identifying children who are eligible for the program, and establishing suitable placements for them. The other grantee, Lutheran Immigration Refugee Services, does not operate in Texas.
Many of the youth are placed with family in the United States, but some require foster and adoptive parents.
According to the complaint, the couple was first introduced to CCFW when the agency approached Marouf related to her work through the immigration clinic at Texas A&M. Marouf was invited to tour CCFW’s facility, which was how she learned about the URM program.
But when she and Esplin took an interest in serving as foster parents under the unaccompanied minors program, the complaint alleges that Catholic Charities denied their candidacy because the couple did not “mirror the holy family.”
On or around February 22, 2017, the same day that Catholic Charities informed the couple that they did not qualify to become foster parents, another Catholic Charities employee invited Marouf and her colleagues to deliver a “Know Your Rights” presentation at its facility, which Marouf gave.
When the couple learned that they would not be considered because of their LGBTQ status, Marouf inquired as to how the agency was serving any refugee children who might also identify as LGBTQ, according to the complaint. Catholic Charities responded that “none of the approximately 700 children that CCFW serves is a member of the LGBT community.”
The complaint further alleges that the federal agency was aware when the grant was awarded to USCCB that the organization, and its sub-grantees like Catholic Charities of Fort Worth, would not serve LGBTQ families and youth.
From the complaint:
“Federal Defendants were on notice at the time that they awarded the URM [Unaccompanied Refugee Minors] and UC [Unaccompanied Alien Child] program grants for the relevant period to USCCB that USCCB and its sub-grantees, including CCFW, would administer the grants in a discriminatory manner based on its religious beliefs, including its religious beliefs disfavoring same-sex relationships. Yet Federal Defendants did not implement any safeguards to prevent USCCB or its sub-grantees, including CCFW, from doing so. As a result, Federal Defendants violated the United States Constitution.”
When asked to comment, HHS replied that, as a matter of policy, it does not comment on matters related to pending litigation.
The Catholic Bishops of Texas expressed support for Catholic Charities of Fort Worth in a statement, in which they said the organization is in compliance with Catholic teaching, and “with all federal regulations associated with funding from the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) through its Office of Refugee Resettlement (ORR).”
Faith-based child welfare providers in Texas are permitted to not work with LGBTQ couples, per a state law signed last year. Seven other states have passed similar bills since same-sex marriage became the law of the land: Alabama, North Dakota, South Dakota, Virginia, Mississippi and Michigan.
But those laws only apply to state grantees and contractors. They have no jurisdiction over federal partnerships.
“There is no discrimination in a federal program based on sexual orientation,” said Alex Luchenitser, associate legal director for Americans United for Separation of Church and State. “This is a federal program that the Conference is administering. Federal funds must never be used to support discrimination.”
There is a bill pending in Congress that would protect faith-based groups nationwide from working with LGBTQ couples. The Child Welfare Provider Inclusion Act of 2017 would empower the Department of Health and Human Services to penalize federal child welfare funds for any state that takes “adverse action” against “a child welfare service provider on the basis that the provider has declined or will decline to provide, facilitate or refer for a child welfare service that conflicts with, or under circumstances that conflict with, the provider’s sincerely held religious beliefs or moral convictions.”
The legislation was introduced by Sen. Mike Enzi (R-Wyo.) and Rep. Mike Kelly (R-Penn.).
On the other end of the spectrum, Rep. John Lewis (D-Ga.) has introduced a bill that would prohibit any recipient of federal assistance for adoption and foster care placements from discriminating against any potential client.
CORRECTION: This story was updated to remove mention of Catholic Charities as a defendant in the case.
John Kelly contributed to this story.