Fort Worth

Lesbian couple sues feds, Catholic bishops over foster care program rejection

Two lesbian college professors married to each other were told they could not foster a refugee child through Catholic Charities of Fort Worth because they did not "mirror a holy family," according to a lawsuit filed in federal court on Tuesday.

Fatma Marouf and Bryn Esplin blame the federal government and the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops for blocking their attempt to foster a refugee child. Their lawsuit asks the federal government to either stop doing business in a way that discriminates against lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people or cut off the money the Catholic bishops use to fund foster care programs for refugee children.

"They were told they could not apply because they were not a holy family," said Jamie Gliksberg, an attorney with Lambda Legal who helped research the lawsuit. "Because they were two women who were married, that made them ineligible to foster an unaccompanied refugee child."

The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops gets funding for refugee resettlement programs that it disperses to organizations nationwide that carry out the work, Glicksberg said.

But those organizations have to follow the religious criteria set forth by the Catholic bishops when they choose which families can participate in refugee foster care programs, Glicksberg said.

"Allowing the [bishops] to turn away our clients is like our government endorsing one set of religious beliefs over another, which is unconstitutional," Glicksberg said.

Groups and people named in the lawsuit also include the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services and its secretary, Alex Azar; the Administration for Children and Families and Steven Wagner, acting assistant secretary; and the Office of Refugee Resettlement and its director, Scott Lloyd.

Glicksberg said the couple was on the phone with a Catholic Charities official when they were denied participation in the refugee foster care program.

Marouf and Esplin both live in Fort Worth and work at Texas A&M University, where Marouf is a law professor and director of Texas A&M's Immigrant Rights Clinic and Esplin is an assistant professor of bioethics at Texas A&M College of Medicine.

"They could not find more perfect parents," Glicksberg said. "Bryn and Fatma know firsthand what these children have gone through."

Catholic Charities of Fort Worth's international foster care program follows the teachings of the Catholic Church and is in compliance with federal regulations, according to a joint statement from the Texas Catholic Conference of Bishops and the Catholic Diocese of Fort Worth.

The program "is an outreach that is faithful to the Church's mission to care for the poor and vulnerable," Fort Worth Bishop Michael Olson said in a statement.

"This mission is entrusted to the Church by Christ. 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," Olson said.

Mitch Mitchell: 817-390-7752, @mitchmitchel3

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