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Lesbian Couple In Fort Worth, Blocked As Foster Parents, Sues Trump Administration

Christopher Connelly
Fatma Marouf, right, and her wife, Bryn Esplin, were told they don't qualify to foster children through a federal program because they don't "mirror the Holy Family," according to the lawsuit.

A Fort Worth couple is suing the federal government and the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops. They argue they were blocked from fostering refugee children because they’re lesbians.

When Bryn Esplin and her wife, Fatma Marouf, both professors at Texas A&M University, asked the local Catholic Charities chapter about becoming foster parents, they were told, according to the lawsuit, that they didn’t qualify to be foster parents because they didn’t “mirror the Holy Family.”

"We were both completely shocked," Marouf said. "I think we just looked at each other and then I wanted to clarify what they meant by that."

That meant, they were told, that they didn’t qualify because they were a same-sex couple.

“To be turned away from even applying … was not just disappointing to us, but it denies children the opportunity to have a loving home,” Esplin said at a news conference Tuesday announcing the lawsuit.

The lawsuit argues that violated the first amendment, due process and equal protection rights of the couple, who've been married for three years. 

The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services pays the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops to place unaccompanied refugee kids with foster families. The conference did not respond to requests for comment.

Religious beliefs should have no place in deciding who can or cannot apply for a government program, even if it’s being administered by a religious group, says Ken Upton from the LGBT rights group Lambda Legal., which is representing the couple in court.

“HHS knows they couldn’t say that to participate in this program you have to be a married Catholic or at least look like one to us,” Upton said. “HHS could never do that. So they can’t farm the grant out to the private organization, give them the taxpayer money, and then let them put this on top of it.” 

In response to the lawsuit, the Texas Catholic Conference of Bishops and the Fort Worth diocese put out a statement saying that it runs the programs that place refugee kids with foster families in accordance with Church teachings and in compliance with federal regulations.

"Finding foster parents - and other resources - for refugee children is difficult work," said Bishop Olson. "Catholic Charities are often the lead agent in this work.  It would be tragic if Catholic Charities were not able to provide this help, in accordance with the Gospel values and family, assistance that is so essential to these children who are vulnerable to being mistreated as meaningless in society."

The lawsuit was filed in Washington, DC., and any decision would apply to federal refugee adoption programs nationwide.

Last year, Texas enacted a state law giving more leeway to bar applicants from fostering kids based on religious beliefs to organizations the state contracts to place foster kids.

Christopher Connelly is a reporter covering issues related to financial instability and poverty for KERA’s One Crisis Away series. In 2015, he joined KERA to report on Fort Worth and Tarrant County. From Fort Worth, he also focused on politics and criminal justice stories.