Editor’s Note: For the next two weeks, “The Wall of Separation” will be recounting the top 10 church-state stories from 2022. Today’s post highlights our work to combat taxpayer-funded religious discrimination in foster care.
Americans United and our allies declared victory in June when our client, Kelly Easter of East Nashville, Tenn., was finally allowed to participate in a federal program to foster refugee children. For more than two years, federally funded, faith-based providers denied Kelly that opportunity because she is a lesbian.
As AU’s President and CEO Rachel Laser noted, “It’s a victory that should not have taken two years to achieve. The federal government should never allow a taxpayer-funded agency to discriminate against prospective foster parents because they don’t live according to its religious beliefs. Our laws cannot allow anyone to use their religious beliefs to harm others, and especially not vulnerable children and the commendable people like Kelly who want to help them.”
Kelly, whom AU represented alongside Lambda Legal and the law firm Orrick, Herrington & Sutcliffe LLP, voluntarily dismissed her federal lawsuit when the taxpayer-funded agency involved – the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) – told the federal government it no longer had a religious objection to working with a single lesbian foster parent. It said it will allow Easter the opportunity to provide a safe and loving home for refugee children.
AU Clients In Texas And South Carolina Continue Fight Against Religious Discrimination
While it was a victory for Kelly, it was only a partial win in the broader fight to ensure federal and state governments don’t allow religious discrimination against prospective foster parents by organizations that receive taxpayer funds to care for foster children.
USCCB’s policy may now permit single LGBTQ parents like Kelly to foster children, but the agency still discriminates against married same-sex couples like Fatma Marouf and Bryn Esplin. The couple was rejected by a USCCB sub-grantee in Texas because, as a married same-sex couple, they didn’t “mirror the Holy Family” as the agency requires. AU and Lambda Legal represent Fatma and Bryn in their federal lawsuit, Marouf v. HHS. While the federal government has taken some steps in response to our lawsuit, the litigation continues because the government continues to violate the Constitution by denying equal treatment to married same-sex couples and sanctioning religion-based discrimination in federal foster-care programs.
AU also continues to fight in court on behalf of Aimee Maddonna, a Catholic mother of three from South Carolina who was turned away by a taxpayer-funded agency because Aimee and her family are the “wrong” kind of Christians – they don’t share the agency’s evangelical Protestant beliefs. In November, we filed a motion for summary judgment, asking a federal court to rule in Aimee’s favor and stop the federal government and South Carolina from authorizing and encouraging religious discrimination by religious foster care agencies when acting on the government’s behalf.
Tennessee Couple Turned Away By Foster Care Agency Because They’re Jewish
In January, AU filed a new lawsuit on behalf of Gabe and Liz Rutan-Ram, a Jewish couple from Knoxville, Tenn., who were unable to adopt a child from Florida when a state-funded agency that provides foster care placement, training and other services on behalf of the Tennessee Department of Children’s Services refused to serve Liz and Gabe because they are Jewish.
“Liz and Gabe Rutan-Ram were subjected to outrageous and unacceptable religious discrimination because of their Jewish faith,” said AU’s Laser. “This loving couple wanted to help a child in need, only to be told that they couldn’t get services from a taxpayer-funded agency because they’re the wrong religion. Everyone should be appalled by the treatment they received. Liz and Gabe deserve their day in court, and Americans United intends to see that they get it.”
The case gathered extensive media attention, especially since it was filed amidst the dangerous rise in antisemitism our country is experiencing. AU featured the couple, along with Aimee Maddonna, in ads in the Boston Globe and Los Angeles Times to call out taxpayer-funded antisemitic discrimination and anti-Catholic bigotry.
A state trial-court panel ruled 2-1 in June that the Rutan-Rams and other plaintiffs don’t have standing – the right to sue – and thus dismissed the case. AU has filed an appeal.