AG reviewing potential effect of SCOTUS foster care opinion on Mich. case

Beth LeBlanc
The Detroit News

Attorney General Dana Nessel's office is reviewing a unanimous opinion issued Thursday by the U.S. Supreme Court to determine what influence it will have on ongoing litigation with a Catholic foster care and adoption agency in Michigan.

The nine-member Supreme Court on Thursday sided with a Catholic foster agency in Philadelphia that said its religious views prevent it from working with same-sex couples as foster parents. The justices concluded the city of Philadelphia was wrong to limit its work with the group because it wouldn't agree to certify same-sex couples as foster parents. 

In this June 8, 2021 photo, the Supreme Court is seen in Washington.

The group representing Catholic Social Services in Philadelphia, The Becket Fund for Religious Liberty, also is representing Michigan's St. Vincent Catholic Charities in a similar case in Michigan.

The group greeted Thursday's decision as "good news" for Michigan residents. 

"Caring for children, especially the most vulnerable among them, is a crucial religious ministry — not only for those before the Supreme Court today but for St. Vincent as well," said Ryan Colby, a spokesman for Becket. "Today’s unanimous Supreme Court decision is good news for foster families and children in Michigan — and for the continued protection of St. Vincent’s foster care ministry from the State of Michigan’s religious targeting."

The case involving St. Vincent stems from a March 2019 settlement in a case between the state and the American Civil Liberties Union, which represented two gay couples who sued the state when they were referred elsewhere by St. Vincent and Bethany Christian Services. 

Nessel agreed to a settlement in the case shortly after taking office that required a change to state policy so that contracts with agencies that refused to help gay couples would be terminated. The settlement required the state Department of Health and Human Services to maintain non-discriminatory provisions in foster care and adoption agency contracts by ending state contracts with agencies if they discriminate against same-sex couples.

St. Vincent Catholic Charities challenged the policy in federal court, arguing it violated the group's First Amendment rights to free exercise of religion and free speech, among other protections. 

In a 2019 decision, U.S. District Judge Robert Jonker alleged Nessel "targeted" St. Vincent  and granted the Catholic organization a preliminary injunction that halted the state from enforcing the new policy while the case was pending. 

The injunction remains in place today while the case slowly makes its way through court. 

In his opinion, Jonker said Nessel was "at the very heart of the case" in part because of comments she made on the campaign trail in which she described supporters of the state’s prior policy as “hate mongers” and said she “could not justify using the state’s money” to defend “a law whose only purpose is discriminatory animus.”

Michigan Catholic Conference praised the Supreme Court's protection of religious liberty rights Thursday as well as the work of catholic charities such as Catholic Social Services in Philadelphia and St. Vincent in Michigan. 

“Today’s unanimous ruling from the U.S. Supreme Court, which should support upholding the Michigan child placement policy enacted in 2015 that protects religious liberty rights and diversity in child placement, recognizes that Catholic humanitarian aid and child placement providers are good for communities," said David Maluchnik, vice president for communication for the conference.

eleblanc@detroitnews.com