WASHINGTON – Rep. Pete Stauber, who with his wife has recently fostered and then adopted two children, has become an advocate for a Massachusetts couple claiming their religious faith has unjustly kept them from being able to become foster parents.
“I am passionate about foster care and adoption services,” Stauber said. “That’s why this case is so near and dear to me.”
The congressman and his wife were licensed as an emergency foster home with St. Louis County when they became aware of a 4-month-old boy who needed care. Nearly a year later, the Staubers received a call from Social Services telling them that the boy’s biological mother had just had a little girl and were asked if they would also take the little girl. They picked her up 12 hours later.
The Staubers subsequently decided to adopt the children, now two and three years old. They also have four biological children.
Meanwhile, a couple in Massachusetts, Mike and Kitty Burke, have sued the state agency that denied them a foster license and their chance at parenthood saying they were rejected because of their Roman Catholic beliefs.
According to the lawsuit filed in federal court, The Burkes were denied a foster license because they told social workers their Catholic faith would not allow them to allow a child gender affirming care. Nor would their faith permit sex outside a heterosexual marriage, according to court records detailing the state agency’s interviews with the Burkes.
Stauber has come to the aid of this Massachusetts couple. He led a group of GOP lawmakers who have demanded the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services’ Office of Civil Rights “conduct a thorough investigation” into the license denial and “ensure the necessary steps are taken to rectify this injustice.”
“The Burkes’ unwavering commitment to their faith and their genuine desire to provide a loving home for foster children should be celebrated and supported, not met with discrimination,” Stauber wrote in his letter to HHS.
Stauber, who is also Roman Catholic, cited Massachusetts’ shortage of foster families and told MinnPost that denying the Burkes an opportunity to care for any of them “is just wrong.”
“They want to provide a good loving home for children,” he said.
A former professional hockey player and retired law enforcement officer who has represented an Iron Range-based district since 2019, Stauber, 57, is best known for his efforts to protect and expand mining and other economic development in the region.
But he has plunged headfirst into the culture wars by stepping into a case that involves hot button issues – gender identity, sexual orientation and religion.
‘Let’s take the T out of it’
The Burkes had struggled with infertility and turned to foster care because they said adoption was too expensive, according to the lawsuit. Mike, an Iraq War veteran, and Kitty, who had worked with school children, underwent training for prospective foster parents, called the Model Approach To Partnerships In Parenting, or MAPP. And the couple seemed to have passed training with flying colors.
“They seem to have a solid understanding of how trauma can affect people, as Michael spoke openly about his PTSD as a Veteran,” a social worker said of the Burkes, according to email correspondence included in the court documents. “Both of them were active participants throughout MAPP and their comments often helped to enrich the training. It is anticipated that they will work cooperatively with DCF throughout their adoption journey.”
But during interviews with the agency’s license review team, Kitty Burke made some statements that raised concerns.
When the couple was asked about their feelings on parenting children who identify as LGBTQ+, “Kitty immediately said, ‘let’s take the T out of it,’” according to a social worker’s report.
Asked how she would feel if her child identified as lesbian, gay, bisexual, queer, or another sexuality, she replied, “There’s nothing wrong with it, I’m going to love you the same, but I believe you would need to live a chaste life.”
In another interview with a social worker, the couple said any child they fostered would have to attend services with them as they were very active in the church and worked as musicians in several parishes.
Court documents also show the Burkes indicated their extended family would love a child who was LGBTQ+ the same as they would any other child, “but their family will also share the same beliefs about the sins of homosexuality and that there are only two genders, male and female.”
The Roman Catholic Church has recently taken initiatives to build bridges to the LGBTQ+ community, including Pope Francis’ latest initiative asserting that, under some circumstances, transgender people can be baptized and can serve as godparents and witnesses in weddings. The pope has also suggested same-sex couples could receive church blessings. But many of the most conservative Catholics have rejected church reforms.
The Massachusetts Department of Children and Families cited its “Foster Child Bill of Rights” in its rejection of the couple’s foster license, which says “every child shall be treated by respect by DFC staff, foster parents and providers without regard to race, ethnicity, sexual orientation, gender identity, religion and/or disability.”
The Burkes’ lawyers did not make the couple available for this story. The Massachusetts Department of Children and Families also declined comment, referring questions about the case to the legal filings in the lawsuit the Burkes initiated.
Aided by a conservative advocacy group
The couple sued the Massachusetts Department of Children and Families and several of the officials at the agency in August, alleging their decision to reject their application for a foster license was discriminatory and unconstitutional.
In that lawsuit, the Burkes are represented by the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty, which is associated with Becket Law, a conservative advocacy group that has been behind some of the most high-profile Supreme Court cases in the last decade and has worked against LGBTQ+ equality and reproductive justice in the name of religious liberty.
The nonprofit has represented Hobby Lobby in a case in which the Supreme Court ruled that corporations that are run by religious families do not have to pay for contraceptive coverage for their workers. Becket also filed an amicus brief in support of the parties who won the reversal of Roe v. Wade in the Supreme Court.
Among Becket’s most recent clients is the Archdiocese of Indianapolis and a Catholic school in that city that required teachers and staff to sign a contract agreeing to follow the teachings of the Catholic Church in both their professional and private lives. When a teacher told the school she intended to remain in a same-sex marriage, the school declined to renew the teacher’s contract. That teacher is now suing the archdiocese and the school alleging discrimination.
Becket did not respond to questions about the Burkes’ case. But it provided a statement that was supportive of Stauber’s decision to ask the HHS Office of Civil Rights to investigate the rejection of the couple’s foster license application.
“Massachusetts’ decision to deprive foster children of loving homes like Mike and Kitty Burke’s was wrong. We are grateful that members of Congress, who have oversight of HHS, are working independently to ensure that discrimination like this can never happen again,” said Lori Windham, vice president and senior counsel at Becket.
To Stauber, the Burkes’ case is very clear.
“To be discriminated against because of your religion is not right,” he said.