A Tennessee woman applied for foster refugee children, but was denied because of her sexual orientation.

After her application for foster care was rejected by a federally funded agency, a Tennessee woman sued the Department of Health and Human Services. She claims she was discriminated against because she is lesbian.

According to Kelly Easter’s lawsuit filed Wednesday at the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia, she wanted to apply for foster parent status for unaccompanied refugee children.

The U.S. Office of Refugee Resettlement directed her towards Bethany Christian Services, which is the only participant in the program in her region and a sub-grantee of United States Conference of Catholic Bishops. This entity receives federal funding to provide foster care services.

Bethany has a policy that refuses to allow LGBTQ parents to foster or adopt children. This prevented Easter from applying last Year.

Bethany ended the policy in March. However, Easter was denied a second time. According to the lawsuit, Bethany’s representative told Bethany that its East Nashville office was funded by USCCB. This prohibits LGBTQ couples applying.

Easter is suing HHS, the Department of Health and Human Services. This agency oversees the Administration for Children and Families and the Office of Refugee Resettlement. Her legal counsel and she claim that HHS is violating the First & Fifth Amendments by “sancailing and enabling discrimination, favoring certain religious beliefs”

The lawsuit states that the Defendants, through USCCB and subgrantees, “By preventing children in their care and custody being placed into homes of LGBTQ persons based on USCCB’s religious beliefs”, the defendants not only discriminate against LGBTQ individuals but also ignore the non-Catholic identities, beliefs and beliefs of many unaccompanied refugee kids for whom they are responsible.” This conduct could increase the vulnerability and alienation of these children, while also denying them access a loving home that could best serve them — all at the expense of federal taxpayers.

HHS’ Administration of Children and Families spokesperson said via email that the agency will respond promptly to the lawsuit, just like any other lawsuit against the federal government.

The spokesperson stated that HHS was committed to protecting the rights and ensuring equal access to all people.

Easter stated in a statement, “heartbroken.”

According to a press release, she stated that it hurt to be turned down twice simply because of her identity. “I have been a Christian since my childhood and my relationship with God is what matters most to me. I know that LGBTQ people can have healthy families, and that they are just as worthy and important as other members of the family. What is the point of letting the government tell you that your beliefs are incorrect?

She said that she is “more concerned for the children.” She claimed that the government is hurting them through denying them a loving family.

She said, “I’m qualified and can provide safe and stable housing for a child.” “Is it better for them to live in a group environment than a home where they can be cared for and supported adequately?”

Lambda Legal, Americans United For the Separation of Church and State, and the San Francisco-based law office Orrick, Herrington & Sutcliffe LLP represent Easter.

Senior counsel at Lambda Legal Karen L. Loewy stated that the government has excluded Easter from applying for a home for a child in crisis while “funneling million of dollars of taxpayer cash into a child welfare agency that refuses to permit LGBTQ people to apply as foster parents.”

Loewy stated that “this kind of discrimination not just hurts those turned away, but it also hurts these children by reducing their number of homes and depriving them of the opportunity for placement in loving families that may best suit their individual needs,” according to a press release.

Federal law prohibits federal contractors or federally funded programs discriminating on the grounds of sex. This has been recently interpreted by the Biden Administration and most courts to include gender identity and sexual orientation. Contractors and service providers can still claim exemptions under federal law if they feel providing certain services would be incompatible with their religious beliefs.

Some states have attempted to pass more stringent laws to protect LGBTQ parents who wish to foster or adopt children. Tennessee is one of 27 states with a statute, regulation, and/or agency policy prohibiting discrimination in foster care based upon sexual orientation or gender identity. However, it is also one of 11 states that allows state-licensed child welfare agencies the right to refuse services to children and their families if this conflicts with their religious beliefs. According to the Movement Advancement Project (a non-profit think thank),

According to MAP, five states have policies or regulations that prohibit discrimination in foster-care based solely on sexual orientation, while 18 states do not have any explicit protections against discrimination foster care based upon sexual orientation or gender identity.

In June, the Supreme Court ruled on religious exemptions for federally-funded contractors. However, it did not address whether religious contractors have a right of refusal or a license to discriminate.

The court instead ruled that Philadelphia had violated the Free Exercise Clause. It also discriminated against a religious foster agency when it applied its licensing process. This allows contractors to request exemptions from certain parts of the contract.

Easter and other LGBTQ people have continued to fight their battles in court, despite a clearer declaration by the Supreme Court. Lambda Legal, Americans United, and Fatma Marouf are representing a same-sex couple in the same district that Easter. According to the couple, a USCCB sub-grantee rejected their application to foster unaccompanied refugee kids because they did not “mirror Holy Family.”