By Katie Yoder
The U.S. Court of Appeals for the 3rd Circuit recently ruled in favor of a Christian couple in New Jersey seeking legal protection to welcome foster children into their home without hiding their religious beliefs on marriage and sexuality.
Michael and Jennifer Lasche say that a state agency — New Jersey’s Division of Child Protection and Permanency — removed their foster child and suspended their foster license in 2018 because of their religious beliefs.
The husband and wife, who have served as foster parents for more than 10 years, sued state officials for infringing on their constitutional right to religious freedom. They turned to the Appeals Court after the U.S. District Court for the District of New Jersey dismissed the case.
“We are pleased to see the 3rd Circuit affirm that they can continue fighting for their fundamental right to exercise their religious beliefs,” Michael P. Laffey, the attorney representing the couple in Lasche v. State of New Jersey, said in a March 3 press release.
Laffey, an attorney allied with faith-based legal organization Alliance Defending Freedom (ADF), highlighted religious freedom.
“The government cannot punish the Lasches—or any other American—simply because it disagrees with their religious views,” Laffey added. “Michael and Jennifer are wonderful foster parents, and the child entrusted to them thrived under their loving care. And even though the foster child wanted to be a part of the couple’s religious life, the state sought to punish them for their Christian faith.”
Johannes Widmalm-Delphonse, legal counsel for ADF, commented on the future of the case as it returns to the district court.
“The Lasches are incredibly grateful for the opportunity to continue to challenge action by the state,” he told CNA. “It’s wrong for the government to exclude families from fostering because of their religious beliefs. That’s not keeping kids first.”
“If the government can exclude qualified families like theirs today, especially after serving children in foster care for more than 10 years, it can exclude other qualified families for other reasons tomorrow,” he added. “When this case returns to the district court, the Lasches will finally have a chance to show that peacefully sharing their religious views was constitutionally protected.”
In 2017, Michael and Jennifer Lasche agreed to foster two sisters, ages 13 and 10, after the Monmouth County Office of the New Jersey Division of Child Placement and Permanency (DCPP) contacted them. Later that year, a caseworker, Kyle Higgins, told them that they were under consideration to adopt the girls.
Three weeks passed, and the Lasches learned that a couple in Illinois also wanted to adopt the sisters, in addition to their three younger siblings also in foster care. That couple, the Lasches later discovered, was “two wealthy gay men.”
At that point, Higgins questioned the 13 year old “about whether she would change her religious beliefs about homosexual conduct — which she held before meeting the Lasches — if she were placed with another family,” the opinion from the appeals court reads.
A few months later, both the DCPP and the Lasche family agreed that the 10 year old should be removed from her current home, for reasons that remain confidential. The 13 year old stayed. Then, the men in Illinois decided against adopting the siblings.
After a hearing about the children’s future, in June 2018, “inquiries about the Lasches’ religious beliefs intensified.”
The 13 year old, after one therapy session, appeared “visibly upset” because “the therapist repeatedly brought up religion and told her not to feel pressured to follow the Lasches’ religious beliefs.”
Higgins and a unidentified woman also questioned the teenager about her religious beliefs.
“Although Higgins told Foster Child 1 that the Lasches could not ‘meet her needs,’ that did not dissuade Foster Child 1 from wanting to remain with the Lasches,” the opinion describes.
At a June 2018 meeting that the Lasche family attended, DCPP employees “agreed that the Lasches’ religious beliefs were a problem.”
These employees “sought assurance from the Lasches that they would not reject Foster Child 1 if she ever decided to explore her sexuality,” the opinion continues. “One representative remarked that Foster Child 1 would need therapy to deal with her belief that homosexual conduct is a sin.”
In early July 2018, the 13 year old, whom Michael and Jennifer had hoped to adopt, was removed from the Lasches’ home — even though her appointed attorney objected. The DCPP pursued the teenager’s removal without providing the Lasches with a statutorily required notice.
Three months later, during the foster-parent license renewal process, the Lasche family discovered that the DCPP had suspended their license, without notice or explanation.
Judge Peter Phipps, joined by Judges Thomas Hardiman and Robert Cowen, wrote the March 1 opinion by the appeals court. The decision allows the Lasche family to continue their case by returning to the lower court.
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The appellate judges affirmed the lower court’s finding in part, and vacated it in part. At the same time, the court ruled, the Lasche family’s religious beliefs are constitutionally protected.
“Through the Free Exercise Clause, the First Amendment secures the ‘freedom to believe and [the] freedom to act,”’ the opinion reads. “Consistent with that protection, the Lasches allege two forms of constitutionally protected activity – one involving religious belief, and the other, action inspired by religious belief.”
“With respect to belief, the Lasches identify their religious opposition to same-sex marriage as constitutionally protected,” the opinion continues. “That is correct: the Free Exercise Clause provides an absolute right to hold religious beliefs.”
Citing high-profile Supreme Court cases concerning religious liberty (Masterpiece Cakeshop v. Colorado Civil Rights Commission and Fulton v. Philadelphia), the opinion also states that the Lasches “plausibly allege that they engaged in constitutionally protected conduct by sharing their religious views on same-sex marriage.”