New developments in a Fort Worth-based federal lawsuit might spell trouble for an administration that has allowed grant-funded agencies to use religious beliefs as justification for blatant bigotry against the LGBTQ community.
The final outcome has yet to be determined in the action brought by the married couple of Bryn Esplin and Fatma Marouf, but the ruling by United States District Court Judge Amit P. Mehta denying the federal government’s motion to dismiss and allowing the case to move forward is another indicator that the Texas A&M professors just might prevail in a landmark gay-rights decision.
The couple sued the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS), headed by Trump appointee Alex Azar, and the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) in the District of Columbia in February 2018. This was after Catholic Charities of Fort Worth (CCFW) denied the couple the opportunity to even apply to foster a refugee child. The reason: As lesbian spouses, they do not “mirror the holy family” (“A Poor Reflection,” Mar 21, 2018).
Mehta’s June 12 ruling means that depositions and discovery will now get underway.
In an email to the Fort Worth Weekly the day after the ruling was handed down, an upbeat Esplin noted that Mehta’s 22-page document has “a lot of zingers against the government, so it’s kind of a fun read.”
On pg. 17, Mehta writes that “the troubling consequence” of the government’s position “is apparent on its face.” He notes that, according to the federal defendants, “a federal agency cannot be held to account for a grantee’s known exclusion of persons from a federally funded program on a prohibited ground,” which was “astonishing.”
Surely, Mehta continues, “the government would not take this position if, say, Plaintiffs here were excluded from fostering a child based on their gender, national origin, or religious faith.”
Esplin, an assistant professor of bioethics at the Texas A&M College of Medicine, and Marouf, a law professor and the director of the Immigration Rights Clinic at the Texas A&M University School of Law in Fort Worth, have been married more than four years. Their lawsuit claims that HHS and the USCCB are in violation of the Establishment, Equal Protection and Due Process clauses of the U.S. Constitution. Mehta ruled that the women can pursue each of their constitutional claims.
HHS doles out millions in taxpayer money to the USCCB to assist with federal programs through which unaccompanied refugee minors and alien children are placed with foster parents. USCCB funnels the money to organizations such as FWCC. The Catholics made it clear on their applications for federal funding that they would not serve same-sex couples.
HHS’ troubles may be just beginning. In May, Lambda Legal, along with the ACLU, ACLU of South Carolina, and South Carolina Equality Coalition, filed a similar lawsuit against the federal agency on behalf of same-sex couple Eden Rogers and Brandy Welch. The women were similarly denied the opportunity to serve as foster parents because Miracle Hill Ministries, a government-funded private placement agency, was granted a waiver by HHS that allowed the agency to reject potential foster parents who are gay.