The U.S. Court of Appeals for the 3rd Circuit ruled March 1 in favor of a New Jersey husband and wife seeking to protect their right to care for foster children without hiding their Biblical beliefs about marriage and sexuality.
Michael and Jennifer Lasche have served as foster parents for over 10 years. As Christians, they hold “traditional values and beliefs about family, marriage and sex,” according to court documents.
In July 2018, the teenage girl the Lasches had been fostering for nearly a year—and had hopes of adopting—was removed from their home without the statutorily required notice. A few days earlier, the New Jersey Division of Child Placement and Permanency (DCPP) had requested a meeting with the Lasches to discuss the girl’s “best interests.”
The Lasches said the meeting actually centered around their belief that homosexuality is a sin. DCPP employees expressed concern about the Lasches’ stance on homosexuality and came to the conclusion that the couples’ religious beliefs were a problem. They also sought assurance from the Lasches that they would not reject the girl if she ever decided to explore her sexuality. One DCPP representative even suggested that the girl would need therapy to deal with her belief that homosexual conduct is a sin—despite the fact that the girl held that belief before she came to live with the Lasches.
Three months later during their annual inspection for foster parent license renewal, the Lasches discovered that DCPP had also suspended their license without notice or explanation.
In November 2018, the Lasches filed suit against the state of New Jersey and DCPP, bringing federal claims for violations of free exercise, due process and equal protection rights, and state claims under the New Jersey Law Against Discrimination and the New Jersey Civil Rights Act.
A district court dismissed those claims, but the recent ruling from the federal court of appeals reversed that decision.
In his opinion, Judge Peter Phipps referenced Masterpiece Cakeshop v. Colorado Civil Rights Commission and Fulton v. Philadelphia, two religious liberty cases in which the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that the Christians in question were treated with hostility based on their Biblical beliefs about same-sex marriage.
“The First Amendment secures the ‘freedom to believe and [the] freedom to act,’” Phipps wrote. “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. That is correct: The Free Exercise Clause provides an absolute right to hold religious beliefs.”
The 3rd Circuit’s ruling allows the case to be sent back down to the lower court for further proceedings.
“The government cannot punish the Lasches—or any other American—simply because it disagrees with their religious views,” said Attorney Michael P. Laffey, who is representing the Lasches in partnership with Alliance Defending Freedom. “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. We are pleased to see the 3rd Circuit affirm that they can continue fighting for their fundamental right to exercise their religious beliefs.”
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