The lawsuit alleges that DCF practice burdens some prospective foster families who are religious, in violation of the First Amendment. It charges that the denial of the Burkes’ adoption application is a substantial burden on their exercise of religion, forcing them to choose between becoming foster and adoptive parents or maintaining their religious beliefs.
According to the lawsuit, the plaintiffs “experienced hostility towards their Catholic beliefs” throughout the application process in violation of the First Amendment’s free exercise clause. DCF policy, in effect, favors some religious beliefs on human sexuality, while disfavoring those of the Burkes.
“DCF’s actions are discriminatory and unconstitutional,” says the lawsuit, citing a federal court’s ruling enjoining similar regulations in the state of Washington.
DCF’s policy would bar any Massachusetts family with similar beliefs from fostering or adopting through the child welfare system, the lawsuit argues. Many Muslims, Jews, Protestant Christians, and others have similar religious beliefs.
The lawsuit cites DCF figures that there are about 1,500 children who have not been placed with families in the Massachusetts foster care system. In the Western Regional Office, whose jurisdiction includes the Burkes’ home residence, more than 300 children under its authority have not been placed with families.
The lawsuit asks the federal court to bar state officials from declining to issue a foster care license to the Burkes and to bar state officials from discriminating against foster parents. It also seeks nominal and compensatory damages against the defendants as well as attorney’s fees.
Named in the lawsuit are several Massachusetts officials, including Kate Walsh in her official capacity as secretary of the Massachusetts Executive Office of Health and Human Services, and Linda Spears in her official capacity as commissioner of the Massachusetts Department of Children and Families.
CNA sought comment from Walsh’s and Spears’ offices but did not receive a response by publication.
Catholic institutions that aid in adoptions and foster care placements have also faced legal and regulatory pressure.
Catholic Charities of Boston was forced to close its adoption services in 2006 because it would no longer place children with homosexual couples, as required by state law. Catholic agencies in other states have been barred from operating or denied government funds because of similar laws.
A unanimous 2021 Supreme Court decision, Fulton v. City of Philadelphia, ruled that the City of Philadelphia violated Catholic Social Services’ free exercise of religion when it stopped contracting with them for foster care services in 2018. Catholic Social Services had refused to certify same-sex couples as foster parents because of its Catholic beliefs on marriage.
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