A Massachusetts couple recently filed a complaint in federal court against the state’s health secretary and multiple officials in the Department of Children and Families (DCF) after their application to become foster parents was denied because of their religious beliefs about marriage and sexuality.
Mike and Kitty Burke are a Catholic couple from Massachusetts who applied to become foster parents in order to care for vulnerable children in need of a loving home. Mike is an Iraq war veteran, and Kitty is a former paraprofessional for special needs children. Unable to have biological children, they sought to become foster parents through the state’s foster care program with the hope of caring for and eventually adopting children in need of a stable home.
According to Becket Law, the nonprofit legal firm representing the Burkes, the Massachusetts DCF currently does not have enough foster homes or facilities to meet the needs of the children in its care, leaving over 1,500 children without a family. The crisis has become so extreme that the state has resorted to housing children in hospitals for weeks on end—not because the children need medical attention, but because the Commonwealth has nowhere else to put them.
The couple went through 30 hours of training, lengthy interviews, and assessments of their home, health, and family life. Despite meeting all the requirements, the DCF denied the couple because they “would not be affirming to a child who identified as LGBTQIA.”
The Burkes believe that all children should be loved and supported, and they would never reject a child placed in their home. They also believe that children should not undergo procedures that attempt to change their God-given sex, and they uphold orthodox Christian beliefs about marriage and sexuality. As the author of their license study put it, while the Burkes are “lovely people,” “their faith is not supportive and neither are they.”
DCF regulation and policy, as well as the Massachusetts Foster Parent Bill of Rights, all prohibit religious discrimination against potential foster parents. As Becket Laws points out, the “Supreme Court has already—unanimously—rejected the attempt to exclude Catholic foster care agencies from the child welfare system (Fulton v. City of Philadelphia, 2021). And the Third Circuit held that the First Amendment prohibits retaliation against foster parents for sharing their religious beliefs on marriage.”
Why does this matter?
This is another instance of the state overstepping its authority and failing in its duty. The state has no authority to penalize individuals for their religious beliefs. This is a bedrock principle of our constitutional order, and one that has been affirmed repeatedly in court decisions at all levels.
Instead, the state does have a duty to promote justice. One way it does that is through the care of the most vulnerable. A loving husband and wife willing to care and provide for a vulnerable child should not be seen as dangerous because they will not support dangerous and medically unnecessary surgical interventions for children experiencing gender dysphoria. No government should use the state’s power to cause children to suffer by advancing a progressive agenda out of step with the actual goal of caring for vulnerable children.
How is the ERLC advocating for similar issues?
The ERLC has made it a priority to protect the religious liberty of foster care and adoption service providers.
A number of states and cities are working to exclude child welfare providers who seek to operate in a manner consistent with their religious convictions. This leads to fewer families available for foster care and adoption. Legislation is needed to further prohibit government discrimination against child welfare agencies on the basis of their beliefs and ultimately protect children in the foster system and those waiting for adoption by ensuring that a wide range of child welfare providers are available to serve them. Such religious liberty protections are especially necessary to support pro-family policy in a post-Roe world.
One example of such legislation at the federal level is the Child Welfare Provider Inclusion Act. The bill would prohibit “the federal government, states, tribal nations, or localities from discriminating or taking adverse action against a child welfare provider that declines to provide services due to the provider’s sincerely held religious beliefs or moral convictions.” The ERLC has long supported this legislation and hopes to see states take up similar efforts to preserve religious liberty and help vulnerable children find a place to call home.
As Christians, we are called to hold fast to God’s design for marriage and sexuality as we care for the vulnerable. Furthermore, as Southern Baptists, we believe that government should not interfere with our ability to live out our faith as we participate in our communities. As our culture continues to turn away from a biblical view of gender and sexuality, the ERLC will steadfastly affirm the foundational rights of parents—including foster and adoptive parents—in decision-making regarding their children and advocate against harmful gender-transition practices while we seek the flourishing of our society and hold out the hope of the gospel to a confused culture.