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A lesbian married couple from Texas is suing the federal government after they say that a Catholic nonprofit that receives taxpayer funding denied them the opportunity to serve as foster parents for refugee children because of their sexual orientation.

Fatma Marouf, 41, and Bryn Esplin, 33, both professors at Texas A&M University in Fort Worth, said they were beginning the process to become refugee foster parents last year when they were told by a local charity, Catholic Charities of Fort Worth, that they did not qualify after it became clear that they were a same-sex couple, according to a complaint filed Tuesday in district court in Washington.

The Catholic Charities of Fort Worth receives taxpayer funding to help find foster parents for refugee children, in the form of sub-grants from the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, which receives grants from the Department of Health and Human Services’ Office of Refugee Resettlement.

Marouf, a law professor, and Esplin, who teaches bioethics, are being represented in the case by lawyers with Lambda Legal, a prominent LGBT rights nonprofit based in New York. They say their treatment violates the First Amendment’s establishment clause as well as the equal protection enshrined in the Fifth Amendment.

The defendants, which include HHS, the ORR and the USCCB, “have discriminated and continue to discriminate impermissibly against individuals, including Plaintiffs, based on religion, their sexual orientation, their sex, and the same-sex character of their marriage, by funding the administration of services that they are on notice are being administered in a manner that disfavors same-sex relationships,” the lawsuit argues.

The HHS did not respond to a request for comment on Tuesday.

Marouf and Esplin’s ordeal began after Marouf had difficulty getting pregnant through unspecified methods, according to the lawsuit.

After Marouf, who is the director of Texas A&M’s Immigrant Rights Clinic, was invited by the Catholic Charities of Fort Worth to visit their office to learn more about their programs and the refugee populations they work with, the couple decided to try and foster a refugee child.

“After seeing that, it made me feel really sad for these kids,” Marouf said in a phone interview.

Citing Marouf’s background working on immigration and asylum-related issues in her career, as well as their multicultural heritage — Marouf’s parents were immigrants from Egypt and Turkey, and Esplin was raised Mormon in Utah and Nevada — the couple decided that the program “seemed like such a good fit for us,” Marouf said.

But they were shocked by the response they were given during a telephone interview with a representative from CCFW’s board of directors, she said. The woman told them that foster parents must “mirror the holy family,” according to their court complaint.

“Shock, disappointment, anger,” Marouf said.

The CCFW and USCCB did not respond to an immediate request for comment.

Marouf then reached out to the ORR, which had initially referred her to the CCFW’s program, to report that she had been discriminated against, the lawsuit states. Though the office responded to ask her for the names of the people she had spoken to, it has not communicated with her for nearly a year, she said.

The couple says they don’t know of any other organizations near them to help them foster a refugee child. They hope their lawsuit forces a change in the organization’s policy or the loss of federal funding. They said they are continuing to explore other avenues for adopting and foster care as the lawsuit works its way through the court system.

“We feel well-suited to do it, given how much work we’ve done,” Marouf said. “We felt like we could be a culturally sensitive home.”

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