Lesbian sues federal government after being rejected by reception agency

A woman from Tennessee is to chase the Department of Health and Human Services after a federally funded foster care agency rejected her application because she is a lesbian.

Kelly Easter, from Nashville, wanted to apply to become a foster parent of unaccompanied refugee children, according to her lawsuit filed in U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia on Wednesday.

The United States Refugee Resettlement Office referred her to Bethany Christian Services, the only entity participating in the program in her area and a sub-recipient of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB), which receives federal funds. to provide foster care services.

Bethany had a long policy of denying LGBTQ parents from applying for foster care or adopting, which kept Easter from applying last year.

In March, Bethany ended this policy, but when Easter applied it was again turned down. A representative for Bethany told her that her East Nashville office is funded by the USCCB, which prohibits LGBTQ couples from applying, according to the lawsuit.

Easter is suing the Department of Health and Human Services, which oversees the Children and Families Administration and its Refugee Resettlement Office. She and her legal counsel allege that the HHS, “by sanctioning and allowing discrimination and promoting certain religious beliefs”, violates the First and Fifth Amendments.

“By preventing children in their care and custody from being placed in LGBTQ homes based on the religious beliefs of the USCCB, the defendants – through the USCCB and its sub- beneficiaries – not only discriminate against LGBTQ people, but also effectively ignore the non-Catholic identities and beliefs of many unaccompanied refugee children for whom they are responsible, says the lawsuit.“ This conduct potentially increases the alienation and vulnerability of these children , while denying them access to loving homes that could better serve them, all at the expense of federal taxpayers. “

A spokesperson for the HHS Children and Families Administration said in an email that it would respond to the lawsuit on time, as with any lawsuit naming the federal government.

“HHS is committed to protecting the rights of LGBTQ + people and ensuring access to our programs and services,” said the spokesperson.

Easter said in a statement that she was “heartbroken”.

“It hurts to be refused – twice – just because of my identity,” she said, according to one Press release. “I have been a Christian since I was a little girl and my personal relationship with God is the most important thing to me. I also know that LGBTQ people can have successful families and that they are as important and deserving as others. . How can the government tell me that my beliefs are wrong? ”

She added that she was “more concerned about the children”. She said the government was harming them by denying them a loving home.

“I am qualified and can provide a safe and stable home for a child,” she said. “How is it better for them to stay in a group rather than in a house with someone who can care for and support them adequately? “

Easter is represented by Lambda Legal, Americans United for the Separation of Church and State and the San Francisco-based law firm Orrick, Herrington & Sutcliffe LLP.

Karen L. Loewy, senior lawyer at Lambda Legal, said the government was excluding Easter from the request to provide a home for a child in need, while “directing millions of dollars of taxpayer dollars into an organization of protection that refuses to allow LGBTQ people to apply to be foster parents.

“This type of discrimination harms not only those who are turned away, but also the children in these programs by reducing the number of available shelters and depriving these children of the possibility of being considered for placement in loving shelters that can better. meet their individual needs. “Loewy said, according to a press release.

Federal law currently prohibits federal contractors and federally funded programs from discriminating on the basis of sex, which has recently been interpreted by the Biden administration and most courts to include sexual orientation and gender. gender identity. But there are exceptions to federal law for contractors and service providers who believe that the provision of certain services would conflict with their religious beliefs.

Some states have attempted to pass stricter laws to protect LGBTQ people who wish to welcome or adopt children. Tennessee is actually one of 27 states that have a law, regulation, and / or agency policy that prohibits discrimination in foster families based on sexual orientation and gender identity, but it is also one of 11 states that allows state-licensed child welfare agencies to refuse to provide services to children and families, including LGBTQ people and same-sex couples, if this conflicts with their religious beliefs, according to the Movement advancement project, a non-profit organization thinks to thank.

Five states have regulations or policies that prohibit discrimination in foster care based on sexual orientation only, and 18 states have no explicit protection against discrimination in foster care based on sexual orientation or gender identity, according to MAP.

The Supreme Court ruled on the issue of religious exemptions for federally funded contractors in June, but avoided determining whether religious contractors have the right to refuse a service or, as advocates say, to have a license to discriminate.

Instead, the court ruled that the city of Philadelphia violated the free exercise clause and discriminated against a religious foster care agency in enforcing its licensing process, which allows entrepreneurs to seek exemptions for certain parts of the contract.

In the absence of a clearer statement from the Supreme Court, LGBTQ people like Easter have continued to fight in court. Lambda Legal and Americans United represent Fatma Marouf and Bryn Esplin, a same-sex couple, in the same neighborhood as Easter. The couple allege that a sub-recipient of the USCCB refused them to apply to take in unaccompanied refugee children because they did not “reflect the Holy Family”.

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