Nessel nixes state involvement in abortion, discrimination, religious suits

Beth LeBlanc
The Detroit News
Attorney General Dana Nessel

Lansing — Democratic Attorney General Dana Nessel has withdrawn the state from eight lawsuits pertaining to reproductive rights, discrimination based on gender and separation of church and state.

The state’s newly appointed solicitor general Fadwa Hammoud filed the motions to withdraw from the cases Tuesday, noting in each motion that the amicus briefs filed in support of the cases by Republican former Attorney General Bill Schuette “no longer represents the legal position of the State of Michigan.”

“I will not use this office to undermine some of the most important values in our state, including those involving reproductive rights and the separation of church and state,” Nessel said in a statement announcing the state's withdrawal.

Schuette filed to join in the defense of each of the cases last year, voicing support for the conservative causes in the cases originating in Kentucky, Ohio, Missouri, Texas, Pennsylvania, Wisconsin and Washington, D.C.

All of the amicus briefs withdrawn by Nessel had been filed after Schuette had announced his candidacy for governor in late 2017.

Liberal advocacy group Progress Michigan praised Nessel's withdrawal from the suits, which they said reflected Schuette's use of the office "for his ideological crusades."

"Reproductive rights and freedom for all people are areas that need to be expanded and protected, and we’re glad to see the attorney general standing up for those values," Progress Michigan Executive Director Lonnie Scott said in a statement.

The four cases related to reproductive rights included litigation challenging a Kentucky law requiring a doctor to perform an ultrasound before an abortion; an Ohio law that criminalized abortions performed because of a fetal indication of Down syndrome; a federal case that required permission from the Office of Refugee Resettlement before an unaccompanied minor could have an abortion at a Texas holding facility; and an Ohio law that banned government funding for Planned Parenthood non-abortion health care programs and education programs because the agency provided abortion services.

Another case that Nessel withdrew from alleged a geriatric management facility in Missouri had discriminated against a gay man when the facility allegedly withdrew an offer of employment after discovering his sexual orientation.

Three other cases Schuette had joined in defending were filed by representatives of the Freedom of Religion Foundation. One case challenged the presence of a Latin cross on the Lehigh County, Pennsylvania, seal and flag; another in Wisconsin challenged laws that allowed for income tax exemptions for religious clergy, but not for members of the Freedom of Religion Foundation; and a third challenged the U.S. House chaplain’s unwillingness to allow the co-president of Freedom From Religion Foundation to deliver an invocation on the House floor.

Nessel's first weeks on the job as Michigan's attorney general have marked the end and beginning of Michigan's involvement in controversial lawsuits. 

Earlier this month, Nessel withdrew from four separate environmental lawsuits that Schuette had joined during his tenure, vowing that the state "will not be a party to lawsuits that challenge the reasonable regulations aimed at curbing climate change and protecting against exposure to mercury and other toxic substances."

Nessel has asked Wayne County Prosecutor Kym Worthy in early January to review the Flint water criminal cases, and Worthy is expected to make recommendations regarding the future of the prosecution.

Nessel joined eight other states in support of two federal lawsuits challenging U.S. Department of Health and Human Services' rules issued in 2017 exempting moral or religious groups from following an Affordable Care Act mandate that required the groups to provide contraception coverage for employees.  

Last week, Nessel asked a judge to grant a stay in a case challenging state taxpayer funding for faith-based adoption agencies that refuse to place foster children with same-sex couples in order to enter settlement discussions with the couples who initiated the lawsuit.

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