Michigan government officials' determination to halt all state funding for agencies that refuse child-placement services to same-sex couples on religious conscience grounds has sparked a federal lawsuit from St. Vincent Catholic Charities.
The adoption and foster care provider named Michigan Department of Health and Human Services Director Robert Gordon, Children's Services Agency Director Herman McCall, Attorney General Dana Nessel, the federal Health and Human Services department and its secretary, Alex Azar, in its suit.
As reported April 15 in The Detroit News: "The lawsuit asks the court to stop the state from ending contracts with agencies that, because of their religious beliefs, refer same-sex couples to other adoption agencies. The lawsuit also requests nominal damages and legal costs."
Saint Vincent has enlisted the Washington-based Becket Fund for Religious Liberty to pursue its legal challenge.
Becket attorney Nick Reaves told Church Militant that Michigan's recent approach violates both the First Amendment and 14th Amendment of the U.S. Constitution:
Michigan has said that if you share St. Vincent's sincere religious beliefs, you are no longer eligible to provide foster care and adoption services in the State. The State's decision to specifically target and single out for negative treatment agencies that share St. Vincent's religious beliefs about marriage is unconstitutional under the First Amendment.
Contractors that espouse religious beliefs different from those espoused by plaintiffs are allowed to maintain their contractual relationships with the State. The State's preference for one set of religious beliefs over another violates the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment.
Church Militant reported last month that Nessel's office announced it had negotiated a settlement between the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services (MDHHS) and two lesbian couples represented by the American Civil Liberties Union. That 2017 case, Dumont v. Gordon (previously Dumont v. Lyon), challenged a 2015 Michigan law which was signed and defended by then-Gov. Rick Snyder:
"The state has made significant progress in finding more forever homes for Michigan kids in recent years and that wouldn't be possible without the public-private partnerships that facilitate the adoption process," Snyder said. "We are focused on ensuring that as many children are adopted to as many loving families as possible regardless of their makeup."
However, the November 2018 election of Nessel — the state's first openly homosexual attorney general — ominously foreshadowed her office's determination to settle the case in the lesbian plaintiff's favor. According to the attorney general's March 22, 2019 summary judgment:
MDHHS is represented in this lawsuit by the Michigan Department of Attorney General, led by Attorney General Dana Nessel, who took office on January 1, 2019. After reviewing the facts of this case, MDHHS's contracts with foster care and adoption agencies, and applicable law, the Department of Attorney General determined that MDHHS may be subject to liability on Plaintiffs' claims. To avoid this liability, the Department of Attorney General strongly recommended resolving the case on terms that are consistent with the law and existing agency contracts and that serve the health, safety, and well-being of children in need of state-contracted foster care case management and adoption services.
The U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Michigan Southern Division determined:
For the avoidance of doubt, policies and practices prohibited under the NonDiscrimination Provision include, without limitation,
i. turning away or referring to another contracted CPA an otherwise potentially qualified LGBTQ individual or same-sex couple that may be a suitable foster or adoptive family for any child accepted by the CPA for services under a Contract or a Subcontract;
ii. refusing to provide orientation or training to an otherwise potentially qualified LGBTQ individual or same-sex couple that may be a suitable foster or adoptive family for any child accepted by the CPA for services under a Contract or a Subcontract;
iii. refusing to perform a home study or process a foster care licensing application or an adoption application for an otherwise potentially qualified LGBTQ individual or same-sex couple that may be a suitable foster or adoptive family for any child accepted by the CPA for services under a Contract or a Subcontract; and
iv. refusing to place a child accepted by the CPA for services under a Contract or a Subcontract with an otherwise qualified LGBTQ individual or samesex couple suitable as a foster or adoptive family for the child;
in each case, without regard to whether such individual or couple has identified any particular child for foster placement or adoption.
In a statement on their website, Becket explains:
Every year in Michigan, over 600 youth "age out" of foster care, which means that at the age of 18 they officially leave the foster system never having found a permanent family. This number is on the rise, and a recent study showed that these youth — mostly African American — are particularly vulnerable to ending up in poverty, without an education, and back on the streets. That's where religious adoption agencies like St. Vincent Catholic Charities come in.
The Detroit News details St. Vincent's objections to the settlement, which, it credibly claims, could put the agency out of business. As well, Becket President Mark Rienzi asserted:
Catholic agencies make up a small portion of the 58 private agencies that contract with the state for adoption and foster care services, proving "there really isn't any access problem" for gay couples seeking an agency through which they can adopt, Reaves said.
Further, a same-sex couple still can adopt a child within St. Vincent after receiving a home study and becoming a certified pre-adoptive home through a different agency, St. Vincent said in its lawsuit.
Agencies already can refer couples to different adoption agencies for various reasons, including geography, wait lists or a family's search for a specific type of child. But, under the new policy, "the only justification for a referral that is now impermissible is a religious objection to same-sex marriage," the lawsuit said.
Additionally, Rienzi remarked that there are 16 other adoption agencies located in the same county where St. Vincent operates. As The Federalist reported April 15: "In January, the Trump administration's HHS issued a waiver allowing faith-based foster care agencies in South Carolina to restrict placements to families that share their Christian beliefs."