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Christian foster parents press discrimination claim

Appeals court suggests New Jersey blacklisted couple over same-sex marriage views


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Christian foster parents press discrimination claim

A federal appeals court last Tuesday revived a couple’s lawsuit against New Jersey for pulling their foster care license because of their Biblical views on same-sex marriage.

The state revoked Michael and Jennifer Lasche’s foster parenting license and removed from their custody a girl they had fostered since September 2017 and hoped to adopt. The Lasches sued the state, a state agency that oversees adoption and foster care, and four agency employees in November 2018, seeking unspecified damages and a court order reinstating them as foster parents.

They contended that caseworkers repeatedly questioned them about their religious beliefs. On two occasions, a caseworker also questioned the child about her religious beliefs, telling her not to feel pressured to follow the Lasches’ faith. The Lasches eventually learned that a male same-sex couple in Illinois who wanted to adopt the child, and her four other siblings were under consideration.

At a June 2018 meeting with the Lasches, the main topic was the couple’s religious beliefs about the sinfulness of homosexual conduct. Multiple agency employees indicated the couple’s religious beliefs were a problem.

The same-sex couple ultimately declined to adopt the five children. But a few days after the meeting, without any notice, the child was removed from the Lasches’ custody. Three months later, they discovered their foster parenting license had been suspended, also without notice or explanation.

A lower court dismissed the Lasches’ claim of discrimination. But in a unanimous opinion last week, a three-judge panel of the 3rd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals set aside that decision, reviving the couple’s claim that the agency had wrongly revoked their foster care license. The judges upheld the state’s removal of the child, finding the Lasches could not demonstrate it was because of their religious beliefs.

Third Circuit Judge Peter J. Phipps noted that the Lasches did not claim their views were a factor that the judge considered at the hearing to remove the child. But the timing of the official decision to call the hearing suggested discrimination. “Within a month of the same-sex couple’s decision not to adopt the foster children, the [agency employees] failed to provide the statutorily required notice of a family court hearing,” he wrote. He concluded that the sequence of events supported their claim that officials revoked the Lasches’ license in retaliation for their beliefs.

Phipps also allowed the couple’s conspiracy claim against the agency employees, given their meeting together and telling the Lasches that their religious beliefs were a problem. The judge also concluded that the Lasches could potentially prevail under a state law that bars religious discrimination in public accommodations.

Brad Jacob, a law professor at Regent University, highlighted what the situation indicates about government officials’ view of the world. “They are convinced that they know the right answer on the moral question, and so they’re going to enforce it on everybody,” said Jacob. “I think this is a really, really scary case.”

But Jacob said he was pleased to see a public accommodations law used to protect religious people, rather than discriminate against them—as occurred in Colorado’s dust-up with Masterpiece Cakeshop baker Jack Phillips over his decision not to bake a cake for a same-sex wedding. The Lasches are now able to sue the state of New Jersey for failing to accommodate their religious beliefs.

The case now returns to the U.S. District Court for trial on whether the state is liable for improperly revoking the foster care license.


Steve West

Steve is a legal correspondent for WORLD. He is a graduate of World Journalism Institute, Wake Forest University School of Law, and N.C. State University. He worked for 34 years as a federal prosecutor and is now an attorney in private practice. Steve resides with his wife in Raleigh, N.C.

@slntplanet

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