A Catholic couple is suing 12 employees of the Massachusetts Department of Children and Families (DCF) for religious discrimination.

The suit, filed in the U.S. District Court of Massachusetts on Tuesday, alleges the Western Regional DCF denied Mike and Catherine “Kitty” Burkes’ application to become foster parents solely because of their faith-informed beliefs on marriage and gender.

The filing references a written report by the Western Regional DCF’s License Review Team — all 9 members of which are named as defendants — explaining their decision:

“The couple expressed that they are not open to gender affirming care and believe that partnership outside of heterosexual relationships is a sin. They are heavily involved in their Catholic Church and cite their religious views as the primary reason for seeing LGBTQIA++ individuals this way.”

It concludes four sentences later:

“Based on this families [sic] belief about children who identify as LGBTQIA+ and after a careful review of this assessment by the regional DCF licensing and training review team, the Department is unable to issue a license for them to foster/adopt at this time.”

The License Review Committee later claimed the Burkes violated two standards for becoming foster parents:

“A foster/pre-adoptive parent applicant must demonstrate, to the satisfaction of the Department the ability to promote the physical, mental and emotional well-being of a child placed in his or her care, including supporting and respecting a child’s sexual orientation or gender identity (and the ability) to respect and make efforts to support the integrity of a child’s racial, ethnic, linguistic, cultural and religious background.”

The Burkes’ months-long application process to become foster parents had gone smoothly until their license was denied, the filing asserts. Exhibits show DCF staff praised the couple throughout, particularly for their understanding of trauma and it’s effects — hard-won after Mike’s experience with PTSD following his military service in Iraq — and their willingness to foster sibling groups, children with “moderate” disabilities, and children of different cultural backgrounds.

The couple had been assured their faith wouldn’t preclude them from fostering and eventually adopting through the state, but allegedly became worried when an estimated one third of their home interviews focused on questions of gender and sexuality.

According to interview summaries cited in the License Review Team’s report, Kitty and Mike repeatedly emphasized they would love a transgender or homosexual child just as much as any other child, but they wouldn’t support gender affirming medical care before a child turned eighteen out of concern that children can’t fully comprehend the consequences of such interventions. Kitty added she would affirm a transgender child’s identity by assuring them they were perfectly designed.

In one-on-one interviews, Mike explained Catholics do not hate gay and lesbian people and Kitty denied she would ever kick a potential child out or send them to conversion therapy, such as the interviewer described, for being gay.

The interviews were conducted by Linda-Jeanne Mack, whom DCF hired to assess the couple’s fitness for fostering. Though she acknowledged the couple gave all the “right answers,” Mack concluded in an email sent to a Licensing Review Team member:

“[The couple] are not supportive of LGBTQIA+ youth… Mike, the husband, seems much more open and they can think critically about how they’d respond as parents, but their faith is not supportive, and neither are they.”

Though Mack’s language in the interview description and subsequent emails betrays distinct bias against the Catholic faith, Mack still recommended that the Burkes’ license be approved with some conditions, according to the lawsuit.

The Licensing Review Team considered Mack’s analysis during their review of the Burkes’ application to foster, but decided, contrary to Mack’s recommendation, to deny the couple’s license altogether.

This decision, the suit asserts, violates the couple’s First Amendment right to freely exercise their religion in several ways.

The DCF must constitutionally apply a uniform system of evaluation to all foster parent applicants, the filing argues. By selectively defining “support” and “respect” for gender and sexual identity as synonymous with “affirmation,” the DCF is effectively ensuring people with Catholic religious values can’t participate in the foster system.

Additionally, intentionally privileging secular values over religious values, the case argues, constitutes discrimination, religious hostility and, by effectively communicating the Burkes must verbally betray their beliefs to become parents, compelled speech.

The case further argues against the DCF’s alleged practice of recruiting foster parents from religious organizations. By welcoming some religious beliefs and not others, the Massachusetts DCF is guilty of religious gerrymandering, says the suit, or manipulating the boundaries of religious beliefs so as to favor one party or class.

The local attorney on the Burkes’ case serves on the board of the Massachusetts Family Institute (MFI), a non-profit, Focus on the Family-allied organization “dedicated to strengthening the family and affirming the Judeo-Christian values upon which it is based.” The Institute emphasizes the importance of the case in a comment to the Daily Citizen, saying:

“It would be hard to imagine a clearer example of overt discrimination against Catholics based on their sincerely held religious beliefs. This type of prejudice would never be tolerated if we were talking about race, gender, or sexuality, but when it comes to people of faith, and especially Christians, it’s fair game here in Massachusetts. We are confident that the Burkes will prevail.”

The outcome of the case has far-reaching implications for the effectiveness of foster care systems and religious freedom across the nation.

The Burkes were denied a license in the midst of the DCF’s well-documented struggle to place foster children in homes.

According to the official internal report surveying the 7,810 kids in Massachusetts’ foster care system between January and March, 204 were being held at “Non-Referral Locations” like hospitals and “other state agencies.”  Twenty-four lived in the Burkes’ district.

Assuming the cases’ allegations are true, and the DCF excluded the Burkes from becoming foster parents because the License Review Team felt the Catholic faith didn’t suitably uphold its subjective understanding of what it means to “support” and “respect” transgender children — even after an independent assessor acknowledged the couple “said the ‘right things’” in their interviews — than the DCF valued their ideological stance more than the hundreds of unhoused children, many of whom are likely heterosexual and comfortable with their gender, who need a stable and loving home.

If this precedent is affirmed, effectively excluding people of many faiths — and anyone that questions the mainstream narrative about gender and sexual identity — from fostering and adopting children through the state, housing for hundreds of children across the nation will never materialize.

MFI further notes that discrimination isn’t limited to Massachusetts:

“The Burkes’ story is especially egregious, but smaller acts of discrimination are being committed against Christians more and more every day in the Commonwealth and we have to be increasingly vigilant and firm in our opposition to that discrimination. DCF’s actions in this case should serve as a warning to Christians in other states about just how far government ideologues may go to promote the LGBTQ agenda.”

Further, if DCF is allowed to make exclusions based entirely on religion, the principle of religious freedom enshrined in the Constitution will suffer a severe blow and governments will be empowered to impress political narratives on their citizens.

As this difficult case begins to unfold, pray that the Burkes be supplied with patience, clarity and peace surpassing human understanding. Pray for the attorneys arguing the couple’s case to be discerning and effective in their prosecution. Pray for the Massachusetts DCF that its leaders’ eyes will be opened to the injustice and hurt caused by their licensing standards.

Most importantly, pray for the unhoused foster children affected by policies that prioritize political correctness over their well-being.

Additional Resources:

Massachusetts Family Institute


Photo Credit: The Becket Fund for Religious Liberty