A federal judge in Michigan has ruled that faith-based adoption organizations that contract with the state can refuse to place children with same-sex couples until their lawsuit against the state is fully litigated.
Judge Robert Jonker on Thursday issued a preliminary injunction against a court settlement reached earlier this year between the state and two lesbian couples represented by the American Civil Liberties Union.
The ACLU, a leading left-leaning legal advocacy group, sued the state in 2017 over a 2015 Republican-backed law that protected child-placement agencies from having to violate their religious convictions by being forced to place children with same-sex couples.
The ACLU’s 2017 lawsuit alleged that same-sex couples were turned away by Catholic Charities and Bethany Christian Services.
In 2019, Democrat Attorney General Dana Nessel became Michigan’s first openly gay statewide officeholder and refused to defend the 2015 Michigan law protecting faith-based providers in court.
In March, Nessel reached a settlement with the ACLU that required the state to enforce LGBT nondiscrimination provisions within its contracts with adoption placement agencies.
About a month later, a lawsuit against the settlement was filed on behalf of St. Vincent Catholic Charities and parents Chad and Melissa Buck, alleging that the terms of the settlement violate the Free Exercise Clause of the First Amendment.
St. Vincent has historically been allowed to refer prospective parents to other agencies if religious beliefs prevented the charity from assisting with the certification and licensing process.
Its lawsuit argued that such a policy requires the state to discriminate against agencies with “religious objections to same-sex marriage.”
St. Vincent accused the state of conditioning its license on the organization’s willingness to make statements that contradict its religious beliefs.
In granting the motion for a preliminary injunction, Jonker criticized Nessel for putting St. Vincent in a position to have to either give up its religious beliefs or stop contracting with the state.
Jonker added that Nessel has “made it clear that she considered beliefs like St. Vincent’s to be the product of hate.”
“That kind of targeted attack on a sincerely held religious belief is what calls for strict scrutiny in this case and supports entry of a preliminary injunction preserving the status quo while the case is fully litigated,” Jonker, an appointee of President George W. Bush, wrote in his ruling.
He added that the state pays St. Vincent to “place children with foster or adoptive parents certified as suitable by the state.”
“St. Vincent has done that faithfully, regardless of whether the certified parents were opposite sex, same-sex, or unmarried couples,” Jonker contended. “St. Vincent would like to continue doing so under existing and renewed contracts with the state.”
Jonker also refused a request to dismiss Nessel as a defendant in the case on grounds that she is not responsible for Michigan’s change in policy.
“Based on the record to date, Defendant Nessel is at the very heart of the case,” Jonker wrote. “She referred to proponents of the 2015 law as ‘hate-mongers’ and said the only purpose of the 2015 law was ‘discriminatory animus.’ She described the 2015 law as ‘indefensible’ during her campaign. These statements raise a strong inference of a hostility toward a religious viewpoint.”
Jonker’s decision was praised by St. Vincent’s legal team at the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty, a legal nonprofit that defends religious freedom rights in court.
“Our nation is facing a foster care crisis, and we are so glad that Michigan’s foster children will continue having all hands on deck to help them find loving forever homes,” Becket senior counsel Lori Windham said in a statement. “The Bucks and St. Vincent Catholic Charities won a victory in Michigan, but there is still work to be done to ensure that faith-based agencies can contribute to ending our nation’s foster care crisis.”
Earlier this year, the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services stated that it needed as many foster homes as possible with over 13,000 foster children in the system.
According to a Becket press release, St. Vincent Catholic Charities is one of the state’s most successful adoption agencies and has recruited more new adoptive families than almost 90 percent of other agencies in the area in 2017.
“St. Vincent has been with us every step of our journey: answering every phone call, coming with us to doctor’s appointments, even bringing us food, as we strive to give our five beautiful children the best future they can have,” adoptive mother Melissa Buck said in a statement. “St. Vincent brought our family together, and I’m happy to know they can keep doing their great work helping children find homes.”
Jay Kaplan, staff attorney for the ACLU of Michigan's LGBT Project, said in a statement given to media that the injunction “requires the state to put the individual religious beliefs of foster care agencies ahead of the welfare of children.
"This will not facilitate foster and adoptive placements for children in need,” he argued. “Instead, it will allow agencies to turn away same-sex foster parents who are able to provide supportive and loving homes for these children."
A spokeswoman for Nessel told WCYB that the office was reviewing the decision to determine their next steps.