Jacques: Ingham County puts Catholic agency's refugee work at risk

Ingrid Jacques
The Detroit News

Days before Gov. Gretchen Whitmer alerted the Trump administration that Michigan would still be welcoming refugees, the Ingham County Board of Commissioners chose to strip funding from the only mid-Michigan agency that actively works with refugees as they transition to their new lives. 

The target? St. Vincent Catholic Charities, which has a decades-long and excellent history of helping thousands of refugees.

Late last month, the county board voted to withhold a Community Agency Grant that St. Vincent has used to assist refugees with purchasing a home, learning the language and attaining job skills. The commission is also pressuring the county Health Department to find a new partner agency, even though the department has had no complaints with St. Vincent. 

Haimen Al-Sumaidaee, right, and his family are Iraqi refugees who came to Michigan in 2016 and were aided by St. Vincent Catholic Charities.

As a result, St. Vincent has filed a suit in federal court, seeking an expedited motion for preliminary injunction so that its work will not be halted.

“Without injunctive relief, there is every reason to conclude that the Board will seize other, upcoming opportunities to strike at St. Vincent’s ministry and chill St. Vincent’s First Amendment freedoms,” the complaint states. 

The commissioners’ ire stems not from St. Vincent’s refugee work, but from a separate lawsuit involving its adoption and foster care services. St. Vincent sued the state earlier this year after it altered a long-standing policy (and a 2015 law) that protected the religious rights of adoption agencies when they contract with the state to place children in homes. St. Vincent didn’t want to be forced to certify home studies of same-sex couples. 

Commissioners were set on punishing St. Vincent — refugees in need be damned. 

Bryan Crenshaw, chair of the Board of Commissioners, says he cannot comment because this is a pending legal matter. 

This Community Agency Grant was only $4,500, but St. Vincent’s fear is that additional, much larger contracts with the county — a $40,000 contract to provide health services to refugees is up in January — will also be at risk.

Commissioners at an earlier November meeting did reluctantly approve a separate $128,000 contract with St. Vincent, but only after receiving an letter from the Diocese of Lansing's attorney, warning that denying the funding would be a form of “religious targeting and retaliation.” 

At one meeting, Commissioner Emily Stivers, who describes herself on Twitter as a “progressive, bisexual mom,” claimed that St. Vincent is “an organization that I feel is kind of morally bankrupt.”

These kind of derogatory comments were rampant among commissioners, according to the complaint. 

St. Vincent, a nonprofit that devotes itself to helping the vulnerable, from children in state care to refugees, hardly seems the villain here.

And as St. Vincent spokesman John Truscott points out, the agency “provides services to many LGBTQ refugees, since many of these refugees were persecuted for their sexual orientation.” In the last decade, it has helped resettle 24 LGBTQ individuals from seven countries.  

Becket, a law firm dedicated to religious liberty, is counsel for St. Vincent. It’s the same firm representing the agency in the adoption case. 

“This came as a real shock,” says Lori Windham, senior counsel for Becket. “St. Vincent has been working peacefully for decades with refugees.” 

One bright spot for St. Vincent is that Grand Rapids-based U.S. District Judge Robert Jonker has been assigned to the case, since it’s related to the adoption lawsuit in his court. In September, Jonker granted St. Vincent an injunction to continue its adoption services with the state while the case is litigated. He strongly called out Michigan Attorney General Dana Nessel for her actions to target the agency and its religious beliefs. 

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Nessel has appealed that decision. But Jonker’s defense of St. Vincent was tied to the 2018 Masterpiece Cakeshop Supreme Court decision that found the Colorado Civil Rights Commission had unconstitutionally targeted the baker over his beliefs. 

St. Vincent argues Ingham County is denying its rights under the First and Fourteenth Amendments. There are similarities between this case and a federal lawsuit against the city of East Lansing for barring a Catholic orchard owner from the farmer’s market over his decision not to host same-sex weddings on his farm in Charlotte. 

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It’s scary when the government targets citizens for what they believe. 

St. Vincent is dedicated "to serving others in a spirit of humility and shares a genuine concern for the well-being of its neighbors.”  

Ingham County commissioners shouldn’t stand in the way of that mission.

Twitter: @Ingrid_Jacques