Almost two decades ago, Tashima Crudup left her grandmother's home and entered the city's foster care system, where she learned firsthand what makes a good mother.
As she shuffled from family to family beginning at age 8, Crudup encountered some attentive and loving foster parents, while others were unsupportive and constraining.
"I always wanted to be a foster parent," said the 26-year-old mother of five.
In July, Crudup — a practicing Muslim — contacted Contemporary Family Services, a private company authorized by the state to place foster children with families. She cleared an initial screening process and completed 50 hours of training classes for prospective parents. But after a home visit, her application was denied.
The main reason: She doesn't allow pork in her house.
Shocked, Crudup contacted the American Civil Liberties Union of Maryland, which filed a complaint Wednesday with the Baltimore City Community Relations Commission, claiming religious discrimination.
"I have a hard time believing [the company] denies every vegetarian or Orthodox Jewish person a foster care license," said Ajmel Quereshi, an attorney with the ACLU. "But I do believe Mrs. Crudup was picked out here … and it has led us to believe an anti-Muslim bias is playing a role in the decision."
Crudup said she didn't realize her dietary habits were a concern for the placement company. The food she serves her children was among dozens of topics that came up during a daylong interview in August 2009.
Even though she doesn't allow pork in her house, Crudup said she told the caseworker she would have no problem with children in her care eating the meat at school outings or restaurants.
"Before I was Muslim, I was studying [to be] a Jehovah's Witness," Crudup said she told the company. "I would make a provision for the child to attend whatever services."
The CEO of Hyattsville-based Contemporary Family Services and other officials did not return repeated phone calls.
Officials from the state Department of Human Resources, which oversees Maryland's foster care system and hired the private company to manage the licensing process, notified Contemporary Family Services on Wednesday that it appeared to have violated several state laws.
"The law does not permit the agency to make a determination solely on the type of food served in a home," said Nancy Lineman, a spokeswoman for DHR. "If this was us, we would not disqualify someone from being a foster parent based on these circumstances."
Some local religious organizations expressed concern over the rejection.
"We would support the ACLU's point that she should not be denied for this reason," said Rizwan Siddiqi, a spokesman with the Maryland Muslim Council, adding that he knows several Muslim women who run day care facilities that follow the same practice of banning pork, and that no government agency has protested.
"We will try and fight for this case," he said.
Rabbi Yaakov Menken, director of the online Jewish learning organization Project Genesis, said he has never heard of a company denying a foster parent's application because of dietary restrictions. A prohibition on pork is Jewish dietary law as well as a Muslim restriction.
Taken to its extreme, he said, the company's restriction could "open a tremendous Pandora's box" and lead to extreme cases such as an observant Jewish child being placed only with an observant Jewish family.
The complaint alleges that Crudup's application was rejected after a visit to her home in Middle River, where she now lives.
In a letter dated Oct. 12, the company told Crudup that her license application was denied out of "concerns raised by statements made during the home study interview, specifically your explicit request to prohibit pork products within your home environment."
"Although we respect your personal/religious views and practices, this agency must above all ensure that the religious, cultural and personal rights of each foster child placed in our care are upheld," the letter said. "Your statement indicates that there could potentially be a discrepancy between your expectations and the needs and personal views of a child placed in your care."
Crudup said she appealed the decision, but the company twice denied the request. Contemporary Family Services also failed to inform her that she could ask the state's Office of Administrative Hearings to review the case.
The human resources agency said the company should have informed Crudup of her right to appeal to the hearings office, and that rejection based on religion or other discriminatory reasons is illegal.
An administrative judge could reverse the denial and rule Crudup a suitable foster parent. A lawyer for Crudup said she has not decided whether to appeal to the hearings office.
Human resources officials are unsure whether they will sanction the company.
A stay-at-home mother whose children range in age from 3 to 10, Crudup lives in a five-bedroom, four- bathroom home with Andre Moore, a 38-year-old truck driver. Although they are not married, according to the state, Crudup said, they are wed in the eyes of their religion.
The state, however, recognizes the couple as cohabitating individuals. Crudup was asked about the relationship during the interview process and whether she would object if Moore took another woman to be his legal wife.
ACLU lawyers objected to the questioning and believe that may have played a minor role in the denial.
"I said my husband wouldn't want a second wife," Crudup said.
Baltimore Sun reporter Jessica Anderson contributed to this article.