Three LGBT activist organizations sued the US. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) in a New York federal district court, asking the court to overturn Trump administration policies that allow HHS to make grants to religious groups providing social services.

In November 2019, HHS announced that it was bringing grant-making policies in line with “new legislation, nondiscrimination laws, and Supreme Court decisions” to protect “the free exercise of religion.”

The lawsuit calls such religious protections “a license to discriminate” and “the potential violation of the constitutional rights of LGBTQ people.” Lambda Legal and Democracy Forward filed the suit on behalf of Family Equality, True Colors United, and Services and Advocacy for LGBT Elders (SAGE), who are challenging those policies.

Family Equality began as an organization that was “founded in 1979 at the National March on Washington for Lesbian and Gay Rights.” The organization said that it “was driven by the same fundamental inequality that drives our work today: that caring, loving parents are being denied equal opportunity to form and sustain families because of their sexual orientation and/or gender identity.”

The lawsuit says Family Equality brings together “a national campaign of over 500 faith, child welfare, civil rights, LGBTQ, and allied organizations and individuals” to work in the child welfare system. Given this large network and the willingness of most foster care and adoption groups to place children in homes with two moms or two dads, the lawsuit did not give specifics about how Family Equality is harmed by faith-based adoption and foster care agencies.

The suit also does not say how many LGBT-identified individuals have been denied the ability to adopt or provide foster care for children.

True Colors United was launched in 2010 by pop singer Cyndi Lauper, who rose to fame in the 1980s with songs such as “Girls Just Want to Have Fun” and “Time after Time.” The group provides advocacy and services for homeless youth, with a special emphasis on LGBTQ-identified young people.  

A few years later, True Colors United began a partnership with Covenant House International, “the largest network of shelters for homeless youth across North and Central America.” The groups work “to ensure safe, inclusive, and affirming beds” for homeless LGBT-identified youth. The lawsuit says the new rules leave these youth especially “vulnerable amid COVID-19 pandemic.”

The third plaintiff, SAGE, is a nonprofit, national advocacy and services organization “whose mission is to allow LGBTQ older people to age with respect and dignity.” The group runs the National Resource Center on LGBT Aging, which is focused on “improving the quality of services and supports offered to LGBTQ older people.”

When HHS revealed the policies overturning Obama-era regulations last November, Vice President Mike Pence applauded the move, saying the new rule “respects the freedom of religion of every American, but also recognizes the vital role that faith-based organizations play in adoption in this country.” He said such groups should not be penalized “for their deeply held religious beliefs.”

In an interview about the new rules, White House Deputy Press Secretary Judd Deere told The Hill that “LGBT people can still adopt and that will not change.” Deere explained that federal agencies “should not be in the business of forcing child welfare providers to choose between helping children and their faith.”

The courts will now have to answer these questions: Should religious groups that provide social services be allowed to receive government grants for the non-religious services they provide?

Do religious protections give adoption and foster care agencies; homeless kitchens and shelters; providers of meals and care for the elderly, and other faith-based service organizations “a license to discriminate”? Or do they protect these organization’s First Amendment right to free exercise of religion?


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