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As the executive director of the North American Council on Adoptable Children, I was heartened that the state of Michigan announced this spring that it would not permit state-contracted, taxpayer-funded child welfare agencies to discriminate against prospective foster and adoptive families for reasons unrelated to their ability to care for a child, including their sexual orientation.

Two state-contracted agencies have now sued the state, claiming that the constitution entitles them to a taxpayer-funded contract to provide this critically important government service even though they are unwilling to comply with the state’s requirement that they accept all qualified families. These agencies say they have a right to take government funds and still to turn away families headed by same-sex couples because these families do not meet their religious criteria.

If their claims are successful, this would put the interests of agencies above the interests of the children in their care.

There are more than 12,000 children in foster care in Michigan and not nearly enough families to care for them. These children cannot afford to have families who are willing and able to open their hearts and homes to a child turned away based on a religious litmus test.

Shrinking the already insufficient pool of available families means more children are placed in group homes rather than families, separated from siblings, and age out of foster care without finding a forever family, increasing the risks of unemployment, depression, poverty, homelessness, incarceration, and early parenthood.

The agencies suing the state claim that there is no harm in allowing agencies to use religious criteria to exclude families because prospective parents who are rejected can just go to another agency. But we know there can be — and has been — harm to children. Michigan’s Department of Human Services found that three children’s adoptions were delayed because of an agency’s unwillingness to work with same-sex couples. In another case, an agency did not place a child with his siblings because they were living with same-sex parents. Children in foster care cannot ask to be transferred to an agency that will place them based on their own needs rather than the agency’s religious beliefs.

In addition, discrimination deters prospective parents from coming forward to care for a child in foster care. Being subjected to the sting of discrimination by one or two agencies or the challenge of navigating a system that permits discrimination against them keeps some families from moving forward. Families who seek to care for a child in need should be embraced, not alienated.

The largest state-contracted foster care agency in South Carolina accepts only evangelical Protestant Christians and has turned away prospective foster families because they are Catholic or Jewish. If Michigan is forced to permit state-contracted agencies to exclude prospective parents based on religious criteria, countless qualified families could be excluded, resulting in even fewer families for children.

NACAC recognizes the significant role that faith-based agencies play in child welfare. Non-discrimination policies like Michigan’s do not diminish this role or result in a shortage of agencies to care for children. Where agencies have chosen to end government contract work because they felt accepting certain families conflicted with their faith, other agencies — including faith-based agencies — took on the work and services for children continued.

We don’t have a shortage of agencies; we have a shortage of families.

When agencies choose to take on the profound responsibility of serving children in state care, they must put the needs of the children first.

Mary Boo is executive director of the North American Council on Adoptable Children.

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