Massachusetts rejected would-be foster parents because of their bigotry, not their Catholic faith
Michael and Catherine Burke made it clear they wouldn't truly accept LGBTQ kids
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A Catholic couple is suing the state of Massachusetts for putting a potential foster child’s best interests ahead of their faith-based bigotry.
According to the lawsuit filed earlier this month, Michael and Catherine “Kitty” Burke (below) were hoping to take in a foster child. They applied for the roles with the Massachusetts Department of Children and Families and began the lengthy approval process, going through interviews, training, and assessments of their home life.
Everything seemed to be going well, but the couple was ultimately rejected after they made it clear that they “would not be affirming to a child who identified as LGBTQIA.” Their Catholic faith denies transgender identities and opposes LGBTQ rights, and if a child placed in their care happened to be LGBTQ, the home simply wouldn’t be a safe place to live. “Their faith is not supportive and neither are they,” wrote the DCF worker who screened the couple and conducted their home interviews.
None of this is surprising. It’s the state’s obligation to make sure children in the foster care system are placed with families that will love and care for them unconditionally, and the Burkes were adamant that they were not going to be good parents to a gay or trans kid. Even if the Burkes were fine in other areas, the state can’t knowingly place children in homes where they would suffer even more.
It can be a frustrating balancing act because there are always children who need homes, and there are always people eager to take them in, but the state’s obligation is to protect the kids even if that means not placing them in someone else’s custody.
But the conservative legal group Becket insists the DCF’s actions “are discriminatory and unconstitutional.” Their website tells a very compelling sob story about an infertile couple with love to spare. “Mike is an Iraq war veteran, Kitty is a former paraprofessional for special needs children, and together they run a small business,” we’re told, as if any of that should matter.
This sad conflict was entirely avoidable. Massachusetts wants to maximize foster families and rightly protect potential foster parents from religious discrimination. Instead, Massachusetts turned its policies into a ban on certain religious beliefs. This is as unconstitutional as it is unnecessary.
Massachusetts has put vulnerable children into hospital rooms and office spaces because it lacks enough loving foster families. Hundreds of children in the state’s foster care system need homes, and religious parents like Mike and Kitty Burke are ready to open their hearts and homes. Massachusetts cannot exclude religious couples like the Burkes from fostering because they are religious, nor can they punish qualified families for their deeply held religious beliefs. If this can happen to the Burkes, it can happen to loving, qualified foster families of diverse faiths across Massachusetts.
All of that is pure bullshit.
The state didn’t reject the Burkes because they’re Catholic. They rejected the Burkes because they’re bigots. Catholicism is nothing more than the excuse the Burkes are using to justify their anti-LGBTQ beliefs.
We know that because there’s no proof that the state refuses to put children in the homes of religious families (including other Catholics). Why wouldn’t they?! More than a third of U.S. Catholics accept transgender identities, regardless of what the Vatican tells them. More than two thirds of U.S. Catholics support marriage equality, even though that’s strictly forbidden by the Church. There’s no reason, in other words, that being Catholic would put people out of the running to take in a foster child.
There’s no religious discrimination taking place here. The Burkes just didn’t make the cut. They’re like white high school students blaming affirmative action for why they didn’t get accepted to an elite college even though their grades were mediocre at best.
Despite all this, do the Burkes have a case here? Becket’s lawyers argue that the Supreme Court ruled in 2021, in Fulton, that the city of Philadelphia had to honor its contract with Catholic Social Services (CSS) despite the group’s refusal to work with same-sex couples. Even though the Catholic group was bigoted and actively discriminated against LGBTQ people, the city couldn’t cut ties with them.
But even in that case, the city was allowed to maintain its own (higher) standards for placement.
In Massachusetts, families can also be excluded from taking in foster children if they use physical abuse to keep kids in line—something many fundamentalist Christian parents believe is necessary to raise good children. If a family is rejected for that reason, is it religious discrimination or looking out for the best interest of the kids? The fact is: Religion cannot be used as an immunity against bad behavior.
The bulk of the lawsuit is spent praising the couple and relaying their qualifications, but no one’s arguing about any of that. They seem like perfectly capable parents… for kids who aren’t LGBTQ. But that’s precisely why they can’t (and shouldn’t) take in foster kids currently in the state’s care. The state has an obligation to respect anti-discrimination laws that protect LGBTQ people even if the Burkes have no intention of accepting those kids as they are or only with large caveats. (Being gay is fine, they say, as long as you never ever have sex.)
Imagine if the state placed a trans child in the Burkes’ home and, because they deny trans identities, the child later commits self-harm. There would be outrage against the state for knowingly placing that kid in a home that was never going to accept them. Even if the odds of all that happening are minimal, the government is tasked with preventing that situation from happening, to the best of their abilities. Knowing that the Burkes—unlike plenty of other Catholics—would not truly accept LGBTQ people in their home, the state was right to reject their application.
The bottom line is that Massachusetts said no to one Catholic couple, and the right-wing outrage brigade now insists this is an attack on all Catholics. They’re unable to accept the simple fact that the Burkes just don’t meet the requirements of the job. There’s no reason to believe an LGBTQ child would feel accepted in their home.
Last week, Washington Post opinion columnist Kathleen Parker published an essay decrying the state’s actions. She called it the “new puritanism” and compared the Burkes’ plight to the Salem Witch Trials.
But Parker, too, made the same mistake of pretending this is religious discrimination. She fell for everything Becket was selling. (It’s no wonder Becket posted her article on their website.)
After telling readers how amazing the Burkes are (which, again, is irrelevant and incomplete), Parker jumps to the bizarre conclusion that this is part of a bigger plot against Catholics.
For the record, I’m not a Catholic, though I do come from a long line of Irish Catholics who migrated here during the Great Hunger to escape both starvation and religious persecution. But persecution found Catholics even in a country that had codified religious freedom. Today, Catholics seem to be the only group that can be diminished, ridiculed and penalized for their faith without public outrage. The scourge of sexual abuse within the priesthood can probably be blamed for this. But the First Amendment shouldn’t get the boot along with disgraced church leaders.
Catholics are the only victims of religious discrimination! Who knew?! Maybe one day, long into the future, we’ll even see a Catholic in Congress. Maybe more. Maybe 148 of them. And if we clap our hands all together, maybe we’ll even get to see a Catholic in the White House.
“Catholics” aren’t being penalized here. The Burkes are. If there’s a lack of public outrage, it’s because this case isn’t that complicated. Bigots don’t have a religious right to call dibs on children, and the state has to look out for the kids’ best interests.
If the state was actually discriminating against Catholics, it really would be outrageous. Church/state separation groups would be first in line to sue the state. But this case, like so many conservative claims of persecution, distorts the facts to suit a right-wing agenda.
Parker, by the way, has a long history of saying idiotic things about religion. Shortly after 9/11, she published an all-time boneheaded op-ed that began like this:
One can't help notice the silence of atheists these days. Suddenly "God" is everywhere, as ubiquitous as American flags, spreading — as Dan Rather said in a spasm of simile-rapture to describe rumors following the Sept. 11 attacks — "like mildew in a damp basement."
War has that effect. There are no atheists in foxholes, we've always known. There were none in the World Trade Center on Sept. 11, we can guess. And now there are none anywhere to be found. America today is about God and country, but then it always has been. We just lost track.
She didn’t bother to get the facts right then. She’s not bothering to get the facts right now. Imaginary persecution is all these people have going for them.
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