NEW YORK – A Massachusetts Catholic couple has sued the state, alleging that they were blocked from adopting children through the state’s foster care program because of their religious beliefs about marriage, sexuality and gender.

Mike and Kitty Burke sued the state of Massachusetts Aug. 8, after what they say was an extensive application process which, over time, focused more and more on their Catholic faith, and ultimately led to a denial of their adoption request by the Department of Children and Families.

The Burkes said the news was devastating.

“After months of interviews and training, and after years of heartbreak, we were on the verge of finally becoming parents,” Mike and Kitty said in a statement. “We were absolutely devastated to learn that Massachusetts would rather [have] children sleep in the hallways of hospitals than let us welcome children in need into our home.”

The lawsuit decries the decision as unconstitutional, as Massachusetts law protects the religious liberty of foster parents. The Massachusetts Foster Parents Bill of Rights states: “A foster parent shall not be discriminated against on the basis of religion, race, color, creed, gender identity, sexual orientation, national origin, age or disability.”

Named in the lawsuit is Kate Walsh, the Secretary of the Massachusetts Executive Office of Health and Human Services, as well as the heads of a number of other agencies that exist within the state’s Executive Office of Health and Human Services.

The office did not respond to a Crux request for comment on the lawsuit.

The denial of the Burkes’ application comes at a time when Massachusetts faces a long-running foster care crisis, in which the Massachusetts Department of Children and Families is overwhelmed and lacks enough places to house children.

The Boston Globe has reported that the state is holding children in hospitals, sometimes for months after they’re medically cleared to leave, because of a shortage of places for them to go. Christine Coelho, the director of children and families with the Ascentria Care Alliance, also wrote that she has “never seen such a severe lack of placements for youth.”

Founded in 1872, the Ascentria Care Alliance is an advocacy organization that serves people, including children and families, and those with disabilities, “providing wrap-around services that empower vulnerable individuals and families in transition to move forward and thrive,” according the organization’s website.

Cited in the lawsuit is the latest DCF report, which states that there are 7,810 children in the Massachusetts foster care system, of which 1,521 are not currently placed with families. That data is updated as of March 31, 2023.

In terms of the Burkes, Mike is an Iraq war veteran who served in the Marine Corps from 2002 to 2006, when he was honorably discharged. Kitty is a former paraprofessional for special needs kids. They currently run a business and perform music for Mass – Mike an organist and Kitty a cantor. They are residents of the Springfield area.

They reportedly grew concerned during the home interview portion of their foster care application process, when they were asked a number of questions that centered on their Catholic views related to sexual orientation and gender dysphoria.

The Burkes reportedly said “that they would love and accept any child, no matter the child’s future sexual orientation or struggles with gender identity,” while also acknowledging that they would not abandon their religious beliefs about gender and human sexuality, according to the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty, which represents the couple.

The fact that they said they would maintain their religious beliefs is the reason DCF denied them the ability to foster despite high marks on the other aspects of the application, according to Becket, with the home interview concluding “their faith is not supportive.”

Lori Windham, vice president and senior counsel at Becket, said the decision by the state is unfair to both religious families and the foster children in need.

“It takes the heroic efforts of parents like Mike and Kitty to provide vulnerable children with loving homes through foster care,” Windham said in a statement. “Massachusetts’ actions leaves the Burkes, and families of other faiths, out in the cold. How can they explain this to children waiting for a home?”

Follow John Lavenburg on Twitter: @johnlavenburg