Lesbian sues Biden administration after homophobic rejection by Christian foster agency

Kelly Easter is pictured in an office like setting in a nice dark coloured shirt and a cream coloured jacket

A Tennessee woman was turned away twice from fostering a child through a federally-funded programme because she’s a lesbian. Now she’s suing the federal government.

Kelly Easter, who is from East Nashville, said she’s “heartbroken” after being turned away from becoming a foster parent by a federally-funded programme twice “solely because of my identity”.

She added she’s “more concerned about the children” and said the government is hurting them by denying them a loving home.

“The federal government is supposed to be helping them, but by denying a loving home to a child or young person in need, they are not doing that; they are actually hurting them,” Easter said.

“I am qualified and can provide a safe, stable home for a child. How is it better for them to stay in a group setting instead of a home with someone who can care for and support them adequately?”

According to Easter’s lawsuit, she wanted to become a foster parent for a child in a federal programme for unaccompanied refugee children. The US office of refugee resettlement (ORR) directed her to Bethany Christian Services, the only organisation near her that participates in the programme.

The organisation is a sub-grantee of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) and receives federal funding to provide foster care services, according to her suit.

According to the lawsuit, Easter received a call from a Bethany representative in September 2020. The representative said Bethany was bound by USCCB policy, and that Easter couldn’t participate in its ORR programmes because she is a lesbian. As such, she wouldn’t be able to move forward in the process.

Easter reported this to ORR in January 2021. She told ORR that Bethany discriminated against her by rejecting her foster care application because of her sexual orientation and questioned if “discrimination by a recipient of federal funding was permissible”.

The ORR emailed Easter back in February stating that they were “looking into this” and asking if she was still interested in participating in the foster programme.

Bethany, which is one of the largest adoption and foster care agencies in the US, has a long history of turning away LGBT+ couples from their services. The organisation previously claimed its practice was to place children with married opposite-sex couples or individuals per its “foundational Biblical principles”.

But the Michigan-based Evangelical organisation has since changed its policy and announced earlier this year it would allow same-sex couples to adopt and foster children. Bethany Christian Services’ chief executive, Chris Palusky, said in an email seen by the New York Times that the organisation would offer services to “many types of families who exist in our world today”.

Despite this turnaround, Easter was told by a Bethan representative in August 2021 that she could not participate in the Bethany programme through the East Nashville office because she is a lesbian. The representative said the East Nashville office is funded by the USCCB, which prohibits LGBT+ couples from applying, the lawsuit claimed.

The lawsuit claims the US department of health and human services (HHS) is violating the First and Fifth Amendments by “sanctioning and enabling discrimination and favouring certain religious beliefs”.

It states: “By preventing children under their care and custody from being placed in homes of LGBTQ people based on USCCB’s religious beliefs, the Defendants — through USCCB and its subgrantees—not only discriminate against LGBTQ people, but also effectively disregard the non-Catholic identities and beliefs of many of the unaccompanied refugee children for whom they are responsible.

“This conduct potentially increases those children’s alienation and vulnerability, while denying them access to loving homes that could serve them best—all at federal taxpayers’ expense.”

Easter is represented by Lambda Legal, Americans United for the Separation of Church and State and the law firm Orrick, Herrington & Sutcliffe LLP.

Karen L Loewy, senior counsel at Lambda Legal, said Easter would “like to provide a safe and nurturing home to a child in need”. But she is excluded from doing so because the government funnels “millions of dollars of taxpayer money into a child welfare organisation that refuses to allow LGBTQ people to apply to be foster parents”, Loewy said.

“This kind of discrimination not only hurts the people turned away — it hurts the children in these programs by reducing the number of available homes, and depriving these children of the opportunity to be considered for placement in loving homes that may best serve their individual needs,” Loewy added.

A spokesperson for HHS’ administration of children and families told NBC News that it will respond to the lawsuit in time. The spokesperson added: “HHS is committed to protecting the rights of LGBTQ+ individuals and ensuring access to our programs and services.”