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Facing lawsuit, Catholic bishops allow lesbian to foster child

Kelly Easter, an unmarried lesbian living in Tennessee, filed a lawsuit arguing that a federal foster-care program administered by the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops discriminates on the basis of sexual orientation. (Americans United for Separation of Church and State)

An unmarried lesbian will be allowed to foster a child after the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) let a lawsuit alleging discrimination go unchallenged, suggesting single LGBTQ adults may be able to foster through Catholic organizations while same-sex couples generally continue to be banned.

The decision comes in response to a complaint from Tennessee resident Kelly Easter, arguing that a federal foster-care program administered by the USCCB discriminates on the basis of sexual orientation. Easter sued in October after Michigan-based Bethany Christian Services, a sub-grantee of the USCCB, allegedly told her that the bishops’ conference would not let her apply to foster a refugee child.

In a February letter to Bethany, obtained by The Washington Post, the USCCB characterized the dispute as a misunderstanding and said it does not prohibit single gay people from fostering because of their sexual orientation. Easter dropped her lawsuit in June, as previously reported by Baptist News Global.

The question of whether Catholic foster-care organizations can decline to partner with LGBTQ people took a turn in the spotlight last year, when the Supreme Court ruled that Philadelphia was wrong to stop contracting with Catholic Social Services for its refusal to work with same-sex couples. Whether the USCCB will reverse its opposition to letting same-sex couples foster children remains undetermined, as does whether Easter could still foster if she becomes partnered.

“There is this unanswered question: So if she gets married, are you going to turn around and take the child away and stop working with her?” said Kenneth Upton, an attorney with Americans United for Separation of Church and State, which represents Easter. “I don’t know what the USCCB’s answer would be to that.”

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The bishops’ conference declined an interview request but reiterated in a statement that the court case was “driven by a misunderstanding.” It said church teaching does not prohibit placing a child with a single adult, regardless of that person’s sexual orientation.

“That is neither a ‘change’ in the USCCB’s position, nor a change in Church teaching,” wrote Chieko Noguchi, a spokeswoman for the bishops’ conference.

Easter began to think about fostering in 2020, when she was struck by news coverage of unaccompanied refugee children arriving in the United States, according to her lawsuit filed in U.S. District Court in D.C. She contacted the Department of Health and Human Services’ refugee office and was directed to Bethany, which she says told her that it was bound by a USCCB policy barring gay people from fostering.

When Easter read a few months later that Bethany would begin serving LGBTQ couples, she contacted the organization again. It told her that she still could not participate through Bethany’s office near her home, because that location was funded by the USCCB, which maintained its ban, the lawsuit says. Although she could participate through another office with a different funding source, that location was not viable with her work as a Realtor, she says in the lawsuit.

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Four months after Easter sued HHS in October, the USCCB sent the letter saying it would not stand in the way of her fostering a child.

“In reality, neither the USCCB’s religious beliefs nor its subgrant agreement with BCS bars a single person with a homosexual orientation from serving as a foster parent by virtue of his or her orientation,” wrote William Canny, the USCCB’s executive director of migration and refugee services.

Easter’s attorneys dismissed her case without prejudice, which Upton said means they could refile it if circumstances change. Easter is in the process of applying to foster through Bethany, Upton said.

“This is something she’s been wanting to do for a couple of years, so it was a journey for her to get here, and she’s just thrilled to be either through or almost through the process,” he said. “It’s easy to forget the individual stories when you start talking about the impact more broadly.”

That impact could become clearer through a separate case in Texas, where Catholic Charities of Fort Worth, a USCCB affiliate, allegedly told two married Texas A&M University professors that they could not be foster parents because their family did not “mirror the Holy Family.” The lawsuit filed by Fatma Marouf and Bryn Esplin against HHS and the USCCB could offer insight into whether the bishops’ conference will continue to block same-sex couples from fostering.