Faith-Based Adoption Agency Sues State Over Adoption Case Settlement

A recent Michigan settlement that bans state contracts with foster and adoption agencies that refuse to work with LGBTQ couples has sparked backlash.

On Monday, April 15, The Becket Fund for Religious Liberty filed a lawsuit in federal court on behalf of St. Vincent Catholic Charities and two adoptive families it’s served.

The lawsuit, alleging the new rules violated the group’s First Amendment rights, was filed against the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services Director Robert Gordon, Children’s Services Agency Director Herman McCall, Attorney General Dana Nessel, the federal Health and Human Services department and its secretary, Alex Azar.

“Faith-based agencies like St. Vincent consistently do the best work because of their faith, and we need more agencies like them helping children — not fewer. The actions by the Attorney General of Michigan do nothing but harm the thousands of at-risk children in desperate need of loving homes,” Mark Rienzi, Becket’s president, said in a statement.

The lawsuit was brought following Nessel’s announcement in March that taxpayer-funded adoption agencies with religious objections to placing children in homes of same-sex couples will no longer be able to cite their faith as a legitimate reason to opt out of providing that service.

Nessel settled a lawsuit with the ACLU of Michigan – that the ACLU of Michigan filed – that challenged the state’s practice of allowing state-contracted, taxpayer-funded foster care and adoption agencies to use religious criteria to exclude same-sex couples.

The plaintiffs, Kristy and Dana Dumont and Erin and Rebecca Busk-Sutton, wanted to become foster parents with the intention of adopting children who are wards of the state, but they were turned down by two faith-based agencies Bethany Christian Services and St. Vincent Catholic Charities. The adoption agencies have contracts with the state of Michigan to act on behalf of the state but turned the plaintiff’s down because of their own religious objections to accepting same-sex couples.

“Discrimination in the provision of foster care case management and adoption services is illegal, no matter the rationale. Limiting the opportunity for a child to be adopted or fostered by a loving home not only goes against the state’s goal of finding a home for every child, it is a direct violation of the contract every child placing agency enters into with the state,” said Nessel at the time.

According to MDHHS, each agency was providing foster care case management or adoption services for one or more children referred to them by MDHHS. Because the plaintiffs were not seeking direct-placement or private adoption services and because they were not referred to the agencies through MDHHS, the agencies could not reject them under existing state law.

When Nessel took office in January, she reviewed the facts of the case with her team of legal experts and determined that MDHHS could be subject to liability on the claims of the plaintiffs. As a result, Nessel strongly recommended resolving the case on terms consistent with the law and existing agency contracts and that best serve the health, safety and well-being of children in need of state-contracted foster care case management and adoption services.
The plaintiffs and the attorney general’s office, on behalf of its client MDHHS, entered into negotiations and agreed to settle the case.
According to reports, as of February, Bethany Christian Services, Catholic Charities and St. Vincent were responsible for more than 1,600, or 12 percent, of the state’s 13,000-plus foster care and adoption cases. Faith-based agencies have said they will shut down their adoption and foster care services rather than violate their religious beliefs.
Kelly Rossman-McKinney, a spokesperson for Nessel, told MLive, “We have not had a chance to review the complaint. Based on the information provided during the plaintiffs’ counsel’s press conference, it appears that the plaintiffs’ attorneys do not understand the settlement agreement.”
Rossman-McKinney explained, according to the MLive report, that “the state does not take action against faith-based adoption agencies that don’t take a state referral. If the agency accepts a state referral, however, the agency cannot refuse to provide the child with foster care or adoptive services that conflict with its religious beliefs.”