Lawmakers send faith-based adoption bills to governor

Gary Heinlein
The Detroit News

Lansing — Lawmakers continued a Michigan battle over religious and civil rights Wednesday with the passage of legislation allowing faith-based agencies to turn away gay and lesbian couples seeking state-supported adoptions.

The Legislature is sending bills to Gov. Rick Snyder that are narrower in scope than the religious freedom restoration act that Indiana Gov. Mike Pence signed last March, then revised amid a national furor over letting business owners deny services based on religious reasons.

But Michigan's Republican governor may be at a similar crossroads as he decides whether to sign them.

"Gov. Snyder has the opportunity not to repeat the mistakes of Indiana Gov. (Mike) Pence," said Marty Rouse, national field director for the 1.5-million-member Human Rights Campaign in Washington, D.C.

The Campaign, calling itself the largest lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender civil rights group, urged a Snyder veto of "dangerously broad and extreme anti-LGBT adoption bills that would enshrine special taxpayer-funded discrimination into Michigan law."

Snyder spokeswoman Sara Wurfel sought to draw a line between Indiana's religious freedom restoration act and the adoption bills, which allow a faith-based agency to refer a couple to another adoption agency for religious reasons.

"This is an entirely separate issue from (a religious freedom restoration act)," she said. "The governor has been crystal-clear on that front. He would ... veto any RFRA legislation that comes as a stand-alone bill."

Snyder has said he would only sign such a bill if lawmakers also broaden Michigan's Elliott-Larsen Civil Rights act to specifically include gays in its protections.

Wurfel said Snyder "will be closely reviewing (the adoption bills) through the lens of what will ensure that we are taking care of the most Michigan children and matching them with their forever families."

Senate Majority Leader Arlan Meekhof said the legislation "protects the valuable role" of the state's faith-based agencies in publicly funded adoptions.

"We just codified what has been the law for five decades — that faith-based agencies are allowed to exercise their religious freedom in placing (adoptive children)," he said.

The bills are "very close to my heart," the 55-year-old West Olive Republican said during Wednesday's Senate debate. "I am the proud product of a faith-based adoption."

Under the proposals, faith-based adoption agencies could refuse their services in cases that would violate their "sincerely held religious beliefs." The agencies would have to tell couples where else they could find adoption services.

The Republican-controlled Senate passed the bills on party-line votes of 26-12. The GOP-led House agreed to the Senate changes Wednesday afternoon.

Approval comes as Michigan awaits a U.S. Supreme Court ruling later this month on the state's voter-passed ban on gay weddings — defining marriage as only a union between men and women.

Asked whether the possibility the high court will strike down Michigan's gay marriage prohibition helped motivate Wednesday's action, Meekhof said, "No."

But he added that state practices of the last 50 years regarding faith-based adoption agencies "may not be the practice in the future, so we want to make sure it's codified in law.

"It was long past time to do it, and today was the day we chose to do it," Meekhof added.

Indiana's Religious Freedom Restoration Act originally prohibited any state law that would "substantially burden" a person's ability to follow his or her religious beliefs.

Business leaders have vocally opposed similar, broad religious freedom restoration legislation in Michigan but haven't weighed in on the adoption bills.

Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Rick Jones, R-Grand Ledge, last month held one hearing on a religious freedom restoration sponsored by Republican Sen. Mike Shirkey of Clarklakebut honored a request from Meekhof not to take a committee vote.

The Michigan Catholic Conference, the public policy arm of the Catholic Church that backs the adoption bills, said they "will solidify these agencies' long-standing relationship with the state of Michigan for years into the future."

"Michigan thrives on diversity, (and) these bills will ensure faith-based agencies are able to operate according to their conscience in order to continue serving others in our state," added Tom Hickson, Catholic Conference vice president for public policy and advocacy.

Democrats tried to derail the legislation by arguing it would give faith-based adoption agencies a license to discriminate against lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people, as well as those of other faiths who want to raise 13,000 Michigan children waiting for adoption.

Democratic Sen. Coleman Young of Detroit said the legislation "is the latest example, and the most egregious yet, of religious discrimination run amok in our state government."

Seventeen of Michigan's 62 adoption placement agencies are faith-based, according to the Michigan Catholic Conference

In fiscal year 2014, Michigan spent $19.9 million on contract with private agencies for adoption services, according to the Michigan Department of Human Services. It accounted for about 85 percent of the $23.2 million the state spent that year on adoption support services.

"Under current DHS practice, private foster care or adoption agencies can for any reason decline to provide foster care or adoption case management services only at the point at which DHS refers the case to the agency," Human Services spokesman Bob Wheaton said last month.

"However, once an agency agrees to manage foster care or adoption services for a specific case, it cannot later decide that it doesn't want to handle the case."