This Same-Sex Couple Tried to Foster a Refugee Child and Was Denied
The lawyers argue that it's textbook discrimination.
In 2017, Fatma Marouf and Bryn Esplin were denied the right to foster a refugee child by the Fort Worth, Texas, affiliate of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops.
They weren’t even allowed to apply because a representative said they didn’t “mirror the Holy Family,” according to a lawsuit filed Feb. 20 by Lambda Legal, a national organization dedicated to protecting the civil rights of LGBTQ people, in the US District Court for the District of Columbia.
The lawsuit alleges that Marouf and Esplin were discriminated against for being in a same-sex marriage by an organization that receives federal taxpayer funding, which they allege is a violation of the constitution.
“This case is a perfect example of how one of our most cherished rights, freedom of religion, is being used as a weapon to discriminate against other people,” Jamie Gliksberg, a Lambda attorney working on the case, told Global Citizen.
“Opponents of equality are trying to put discrimination beyond legislative and judicial rulings,” she added. “But the government cannot favor one set of religious values over others, much less fund organizations that impose their religious beliefs, in this case Catholic doctrine, to discriminate.”
The lawsuit is the first of its kind and could have far-ranging consequences on refugee resettlement and foster programs in the US as it gets to the core of who is allowed to take care of children, Gliksberg said.
It also exposes the difficulties of resettlement and integration at a time when the world is facing the largest refugee crisis in recorded history.
Global Citizen campaigns to help refugees around the world and you can take action on this issue here.
Gliksberg said the case is a textbook example of discrimination.
“Nobody can say that there were any other reasons for denying this couple because they never even got to apply,” she said.
The USCCB is one of nine refugee resettlement agencies in the US and it has various branches throughout the country. The nine organizations get money from the federal government each year for helping to resettle refugees, including through adoptions and foster placements.
They have long advocated for the rights of refugees.
In response to the lawsuit, Bishop Michael Olson of the Texas Catholic Conference of Bishops issued a statement to the Texas Tribune defending its right to refuse adoptions to gay couples.
“Finding foster parents – and other resources – for refugee children is difficult work,” said Bishop Michael Olso in the statement. “Catholic Charities are often the lead agent in this work. 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 as meaningless in society."
But their rejection of Marouf and Esplin may have put a child at unnecessary risk.
Texas has one of the most dysfunctional foster care systems in the US. It’s chronically underfunded and understaffed, children are routinely placed in harmful situations, and there’s a huge imbalance between willing and capable families and foster children, the New Yorker reports.
Marouf is the Director of Texas A&M’s Immigrant Rights Clinic and Esplin is an assistant professor of bioethics at the university. They’ve been married three years and have always wanted to start a family, according to Lambda Legal.
Marouf first got the idea of fostering a refugee child after being invited by the USCCB to speak at one of their facilities to foster a stronger relationship with Texas A&M, Gliksberg said.
While there, she saw that many of the children were living in overcrowded spaces, some sleeping in offices, with no parental love, Gliksberg said. She realized then that, as an expert on immigration, she was uniquely qualified to help.
“She’s worked with refugees, besides having first-hand experience, she comes as close as you could to understanding what they’ve been through,” Gliksberg said.
Read More: 5 Facts About Refugee Resettlement in the US
Marouf and Esplin also thought that their multicultural background — Marouf comes from a Muslim family and Esplin was raised as a Mormon — would give them a greater ability to empathize with refugees.
They were also willing to adopt an older refugee.
“Older children get stuck in the system and never find families,” Gliksberg said. “They were happy to help any child in need.”
After discussing the possibility over the phone with USCCB, representatives learned that they were a lesbian couple and said they could no longer apply.
Marouf and Esplin felt baffled by this exchange, according to a video documenting their ordeal.
“We didn’t even know really what that meant,” Marouf said in the video. “What does the Holy Family look like? We feel like all families are holy families.”
They also felt that some vulnerable refugee child was being denied the opportunity to be fostered by a loving family.
“Being denied the opportunity to foster a child because we don’t ‘mirror the Holy Family’ – clearly code for being a same-sex couple – was hurtful and insulting to us,” Esplin said in a press release. “More than that, though, insisting on such a narrow, religious view of what a family must look like deprives these children of a nurturing, supportive home.”
Marouf immediately contacted the Office of Refugee Resettlement at the Health of Human Services, which funds the USCCB efforts, but hasn't received a meaningful response, Gliksberg said. Global Citizen reached out to ORR for a comment but has yet to receive a response.
It was after being ignored that the couple decided to move forward with the lawsuit.
Same-sex couples have long been discriminated against by foster agencies in the US, according to the ACLU, despite an overabundance of kids who need foster families.
The adoption of refugee children is a particularly urgent matter, according to the plaintiffs, who argue that trauma and culture shock make them uniquely vulnerable to the process of growing up.
USCCB was overseeing around 700 refugee children at the time of the couple’s rejection, according to Lambda.
“Refugee children have been through enough trauma to last a lifetime," Marouf said in the press release.
"They need love, stability, and support, which Bryn and I have in abundance. But in discriminating against us, the agency put their religious views of LGBT people above what is best for the kids in their care,” she added.