Catholic Charities West Michigan also sues state over new adoption rules

Beth LeBlanc
The Detroit News
Attorney General Dana Nessel

A second religious liberty group has sued the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services and Attorney General Dana Nessel about a state settlement that would end state contracts with foster and adoption agencies that refuse to work with gay couples.

The Alliance Defending Freedom filed the claim on behalf of Catholic Charities West Michigan in the state Court of Claims Thursday, alleging violations of a 2015 Michigan law and the agency’s rights to free speech, free exercise and equal protection.

The lawsuit asks the judge to stop the state from enforcing its new policy because it misinterprets state law, violates Catholic Charities’ constitutional rights “and adopts the anti-religious views and policy preferences of defendant Attorney General Dana Nessel — who has previously criticized Michigan’s statutory protections for faith-based foster care and adoptions providers as ‘a victor for the hate mongers.’”

"When it comes to taking action as a government official, the Supreme Court has been abundantly clear that that action can’t be based on hostility toward religious beliefs," lawyer Jeremiah Galus said Friday. 

As of Friday afternoon, the Attorney General's Office indicated it had not yet reviewed the lawsuit. But because of pending litigation, the office is "not in a position to comment on the specifics of this or any other case," Nessel's spokeswoman Kelly Rossman-McKinney said.

The lawsuit comes roughly two weeks after a separate adoption agency, St. Vincent Catholic Charities, sued the state in federal court over the same policy.

The policy emerged from a March settlement Nessel reached with the American Civil Liberties Union of Michigan and two gay couples who had sued the state. The couples were referred to other agencies because of religious objections to same-sex couples voiced by St. Vincent’s and Bethany Christian Services.

Nessel's settlement required the Department of Health and Human Services to maintain non-discriminatory provisions in foster care and adoption agency contracts, and end state contracts with agencies if they discriminate against same-sex couples.

St. Vincent’s argued that it would have to close should the state enforce the new policy, but Bethany announced a week ago that it would change its policy to continue its contract with the state.

Like St. Vincent’s, Catholic Charities West Michigan also faces the possibility of closure should the state enforce the rule, the agency said in its lawsuit. The agency’s contracts with the state are set to expire Sept. 30.

About 100 of Catholic Charities West Michigan’s 280 employees are dedicated to its foster care and adoptions programs, which have helped place roughly 4,500 kids over the past decade, according to the lawsuit. Currently, the agency has roughly 300 foster children it is responsible for and 170 licensed foster care homes.

Because of its religious beliefs, the agency “cannot perform home studies that certify same-sex couples as appropriate adoptive or foster parents or recommend specific adoption or foster placement to such couples,” the lawsuit said.

Contrary to Nessel’s arguments, those beliefs are protected by the 2015 law passed by Legislature, which prohibited adverse actions toward agencies that chose “to abstain from conduct that conflicts with an agency’s sincerely held religious beliefs.”

Nessel’s office has maintained a 2015 law passed by the GOP-led Legislature only protected faith-based agencies when it declined services related to “private action,” not state-contracted services.

"We think that interpretation completely circumvents the purpose and intent of the law, which was to protect faith-based adoption and foster care providers," Galus said.

Headquartered in Scottsdale, Arizona, Alliance Defending Freedom has a separate federal lawsuit against the city of East Lansing regarding a Charlotte farmer who was denied a vendor's license to the city's farmers market after turning away a gay couple who wanted to use his farm as a wedding venue.

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