A Tennessee woman has sued the federal government because child services agency with a government contract rejected her as a foster parent simply because she is a lesbian.
Kelly Easter of Nashville filed her suit last Wednesday in U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia. It names as defendants the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, along with several HHS officials and programs. She is represented by Lambda Legal, Americans United for Separation of Church and State, and the law firm of Orrick, Herrington, and Sutcliffe.
Last year, Easter expressed interest in becoming a foster parent to a refugee child through a federal program. Her inquiry to the U.S. Office of Refugee Resettlement was forwarded to Bethany Christian Services, the only agency handling the program in her area. Bethany turned her down because she is a lesbian, citing its policy against placing children with LGBTQ+ people.
She complained about the discrimination and asked if there might be an exception because the program is federally funded, but Bethany officials said they were bound by the policy of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, for which it is a subcontractor. She also contacted the Office of Refugee Resettlement, where staffers said they would look into the matter.
Bethany announced this year that it was lifting its discriminatory policy, and Easter made inquiries again. After some back-and-forth, she was told that the Bethany office most convenient to her home would still not allow her to foster a child because of the contract with the bishops' conference. Bethany officials referred her to another location that is not connected with the Catholic group, but that did not work out for her because the necessary travel was incompatible with her work schedule as a real estate agent. So she filed the suit.
"There are more unaccompanied refugee children in the federal government's care than there are eligible foster homes available for these children," says a Lambda Legal press release. "By allowing USCCB to require its subgrantees to use religion to discriminate against LGBTQ people, the federal government is harming prospective parents and vulnerable children who are denied the opportunity to find safe, loving homes. By sanctioning and enabling discrimination and favoring certain religious beliefs, the government is violating the First and Fifth Amendments of the U.S. Constitution."
"I am heartbroken," Easter said in the release. "It hurt to be turned away -- twice -- solely because of my identity. I've 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 thriving families and that they are as important and deserving as any other. How can the government tell me that my beliefs are wrong?
"But I'm more concerned about the children. The federal government is supposed to be helping them, but by denying a loving home to a child or young person in need, they are not doing that; they are actually hurting them. I am qualified and can provide a safe, stable home for a child. How is it better for them to stay in a group setting instead of a home with someone who can care for and support them adequately?"
"The federal government cares for thousands of immigrant children in foster care programs," added Karen L. Loewy, senior counsel at Lambda Legal. "Ms. Easter would like to provide a safe and nurturing home to a child in need. However, our government excludes her from applying by knowingly funneling millions of dollars of taxpayer money into a child welfare organization that refuses to allow LGBTQ people to apply to be foster parents. This kind of discrimination not only hurts the people turned away -- it hurts the children in these programs by reducing the number of available homes and depriving these children of the opportunity to be considered for placement in loving homes that may best serve their individual needs."
Under Donald Trump's administration, the federal government ceased enforcing policies against anti-LGBTQ+ discrimination by contractors providing adoption and foster care services. President Joe Biden has ordered all federal agencies to see that anti-LGBTQ+ discrimination does not take place, but Easter's suit indicates that it is continuing.
The Supreme Court ruled in June that a Catholic agency could retain its contract to provide foster care services for the city of Philadelphia even though the agency discriminates against LGBTQ+ people, in violation of the city's law. But the ruling was crafted narrowly to apply only in that case, therefore not establishing a general right to discriminate. Several states allow their contractors to engage in such discrimination.
A spokesperson for Health and Human Services' Administration of Children and Families told NBC News that HHS is preparing a response to the suit and also offered a statement against discrimination. "HHS is committed to protecting the rights of LGBTQ+ individuals and ensuring access to our programs and services," the spokesperson said.