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DeGross v. Hunter

Description: A Washington couple is challenging state officials after they were barred from serving as respite caregivers due to their religious beliefs about human sexuality. 

Monday, Mar 25, 2024

TACOMA, Wash. – On behalf of a Washington state couple who wishes to continue to serve as foster parents, Alliance Defending Freedom attorneys filed a federal lawsuit Friday against state officials who refused to renew the couple’s foster-care license because of their common-sense and religiously inspired view that people can’t change their sex.

In August 2022, Shane and Jennifer DeGross worked with foster-care licensing agency Olive Crest to renew their license to provide a home to vulnerable children. The agency informed them that the Washington Department of Children, Youth, and Families enacted new regulations that require all foster parents to use a foster child’s inaccurate pronouns based on their perceived gender identity, not their actual sex. The regulations also require that parents take children to cultural events like pride parades. Because of their Christian faith, the DeGrosses told Olive Crest they would love and support any child placed in their home but could not lie to a child about who they are or encourage a child to reject their sex. DCYF officials then denied their application, even after Olive Crest made more than one attempt to appeal the denial.

“Washington state officials are putting their own ideological agenda ahead of children who just need a loving home. Despite the DeGrosses’ faithful service as foster parents for nine years, the state disqualified them simply for having views that Washington does not like,” said ADF Legal Counsel Johannes Widmalm-Delphonse. “As a federal court has already affirmed in Blais v. Hunter, this exclusion is unconstitutional—religious beliefs about human sexuality are not a legitimate or constitutional reason to categorically bar citizens from helping children. 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. That is illegal and wrong.”

Inspired by the biblical command to care for widows and orphans, the DeGrosses served as loving foster parents to several children for just over nine years. They cared for four children, including two young girls whom they cared for for eighteen months and two years respectively. When they sought to renew their license, the DeGrosses hoped to serve as respite-care providers —those who can act as a stopgap for children without a stable home. In its appeal to the state, Olive Crest said of Shane and Jennifer that they “have a heart for serving children in [their] community” and their “faithful ministry to children in Washington has been a blessing.”

During the renewal process, Olive Crest informed the DeGrosses about Washington’s new gender-identity mandate and how other families were also faced with a “personal decision” to comply or walk away from serving children in need. Confronted with the state’s new rules, the DeGrosses affirmed that they would “love and support any child who is placed in [their] home,” but could not speak or promote views contrary to their faith. Olive Crest submitted their application to the State and sought an exemption from the regulations on pronouns, adding that the DeGrosses are a “very loving and gracious couple who truly desire to support other foster families.” The Department, however, was unwilling to renew their license.

In Blais, a couple sued the Department for excluding foster parents who disagreed with the state’s ideology on gender. The Blaises sought to care for their great-granddaughter but were denied because they would not “support hormone therapy” for a hypothetical child suffering from gender dysphoria or otherwise speak or act against their sincerely held beliefs. A Washington federal district court ruled that the Department cannot bar caregivers from foster care solely because of their beliefs about human sexuality.

From 2017 to 2021, Washington state’s foster-care system served over 10,000 children annually. Due to a shortage of available care, children have had to sleep in hotels and, in some cases, the cars of case workers. An audit of Washington’s foster-care system revealed that these “emergency placements” are “traumatic experiences for [foster] children.”

ADF attorneys filed the lawsuit, DeGross v. Hunter, in the U.S. District Court for the Western District of Washington, Tacoma Division.

In a similar case, ADF attorneys are representing mother-of-five Jessica Bates in a lawsuit against the state of Oregon for denying her application to be a foster parent because of her religious beliefs.

Conrad Reynoldson of Washington Civil & Disability Advocate, one of more than 4,500 attorneys in the ADF Attorney Network, is serving as local counsel on behalf of the DeGross family.

  • Pronunciation guide: Widmalm-Delphonse (VEED'-malm Del-FONS')

Alliance Defending Freedom is an alliance-building, non-profit legal organization committed to protecting religious freedom, free speech, parental rights, and the sanctity of life.

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ABOUT Johannes Widmalm-Delphonse

Johannes Widmalm-Delphonse serves as legal counsel with Alliance Defending Freedom, where he is a member of the Center for Conscience Initiatives. Just prior to joining ADF, Widmalm-Delphonse clerked for the Honorable Sara Ellis of the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Illinois. Before that, Widmalm-Delphonse served as staff attorney with the Hennepin County Public Defender’s Office in Minneapolis, Minnesota, where he represented clients charged with serious felonies. Widmalm-Delphonse earned his J.D. from Harvard Law School in 2014. He obtained his B.A., with distinction, in political science, from the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor. Widmalm-Delphonse is a member of state bars of Minnesota, Illinois, and Virginia.