(The Center Square) – After nine years serving as foster parents in Washington state, Shane and Jennifer DeGross say they have lost their foster care license because of their religious beliefs concerning gender identity policies.

The couple has filed a federal lawsuit in U.S. District Court against the Washington State Department of Children, Youth & Families.

“Washington state officials are putting their own ideological agenda ahead of children who just need a loving home,” Johannes Widmalm-Delphonse, legal counsel with the Alliance Defending Freedom, which is representing the couple, told The Center Square. “The DeGrosses were told that based on new regulations passed in Washington as of 2022, they would be required to disavow their religious beliefs if they wanted to continue being foster parents.”

Widmalm-Delphonse explained that foster parents in Washington must now accommodate gender-affirming and sexual identity language and care for any child in their custody.

“Washington is putting families like the DeGrosses to an impossible choice: speak against your faith and lie or give up the opportunity to care for hurting children,” he said.

The Center Square reached out to DCYF for comment.

“It is well-documented that children and youth who identity as LGBTQIA+ have high rates of depression, anxiety, suicide, self-harm and eating disorders,” DCYF said in a statement emailed to The Center Square. “They are 4 times more likely to attempt suicide, have suicidal thoughts, or self-harm than youth who are cis-gender or straight.”

DCYF went on to say, “Whether a family accepts or rejects a child’s sexual orientation, gender identity or expression (SOGIE) has a profound impact on their wellbeing, and children and youth who identify as LGBTQIA+ are over-represented among the foster care population. In Washington, we are committed to ensuring that these vulnerable children and youth do not experience additional trauma when placed out-of-home into foster care.”

DCYF has struggled for many years to recruit and retain foster parents, especially those willing to take older kids and teens who may be harder to place, according to Widmalm-Delphonse.

“The DeGrosses were willing to take kids of any age, and they have cared for older teens with behavioral challenges,” he said.

It’s an ongoing challenge for the agency, Widmalm-Delphonse added.

“Due to a lack of foster families in the system, children were placed in what they call ‘placement exceptions,’ like hotel rooms more than 4,500 times in 2023, because there is no other place to take them,” he said. “What this really comes down to is the First Amendment and whether the state can force someone to say something they don’t believe in, in order to serve children.”

Widmalm-Delphonse indicated this is not the first time the state has been sued for religious discrimination in the foster system.

“There was a couple who sued because they wanted to care for their great granddaughter, and the state tried to exclude them as well because of their religious beliefs,” he said.

“In that case, the baby had just been taken from her parents, but the state tried to turn the great-grandparents away,” Widmalm-Delphonse said. “That couple won their lawsuit with the state entering into a permanent injunction to end discriminatory practices.”

DCYF referenced that same case in their comments to The Center Square.

“The U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Washington entered a permanent injunction in Blais v. Hunter, in which it ordered that we have authority to require that foster parents follow a child’s case plan, which is determined by the dependency court, DCYF, and the child’s legal parents or guardians,” DCYF said. “We cannot and do not disqualify people from becoming foster parents on the basis of sincerely held religious beliefs. However, the permanent injunction does permit DCYF to take an applicant’s views on LGBTQ+ issues into account when reviewing foster family home license applications.”

Widmalm-Delphonse claimed the state is focusing on a small part of the injunction to make its case.

“The ruling made clear you can’t disqualify a family simply because of their religious beliefs, and you can’t say this one aspect of gender or sexuality beliefs is the paramount factor over everything else, because every child is unique and has all these factors that the state is supposed to take into consideration,” he said.