The American Civil Liberties Union filed suit Wednesday against the state of Michigan challenging a law that allows adoption agencies to spurn potential LGBT parents under the guise of religion.
Religious exemption laws let people, churches and sometimes corporations cite religious beliefs as a reason not to enforce a law — such as declining to marry a same-sex couple or letting state-funded foster agencies refuse to place kids with same-sex couples.
The Michigan adoption law leads to “fewer options for children” when the pool of qualified adopters is diluted because of unreasonable legislation, ACLU lawyer Leslie Cooper said. “There is a desperate need for families. We need more families, not fewer.”
Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder signed the state’s controversial bill into law in June 2015. The law in essence lets faith-based agencies say no to prospective parents if saying yes violates the group’s religious or moral beliefs.
The ACLU is hoping for a “clearer ruling” in court that says private agencies — ones receiving taxpayer dollars — can’t turn away potential adopters if they don’t share the agency’s religious convictions, Cooper said.
Religious exemption bills made up the bulk of anti-LGBT bills that wove their way through statehouses this year, according to the Movement Advancement Project (MAP), a think tank that researches and analyzes laws with LGBT implications: 45 exemption bills were introduced in 22 states.
Michigan is one of seven states with adoption exemption laws on the books, three of which were passed in 2017. The others: Alabama, Mississippi, North Dakota, South Dakota, Texas and Virginia.
“These bills are primarily driven by anti-LGBT animus. However, because explicitly targeting LGBT people would be clearly unconstitutional, the bills are written very broadly,” MAP Executive Director Ineke Mushovic said. “Very few people understand how profoundly harmful the effects of this type of legislation could be.”
Supporters say religious exemption bills provide “freedom of conscience,” which they believe is a critical right.
“Focus on the Family strongly supports the religious freedom rights of all businesses and organizations, including faith-based adoption agencies,” said Jim Daly, Focus on the Family president.
“Not only have the U.S. Supreme Court’s Hobby Lobby and Trinity Lutheran decisions reaffirmed long-standing principles by which government should respect the free exercise rights of organizations that seek to operate according to their deeply held beliefs, but such respect enables entities like faith-based adoption agencies to fill a critical need in society,” he said.
And faith-based groups have a “proven track record” when it comes to placing children in good homes, Daly said.
KIDS IN NEED OF HOMES
Legislation that undercuts adoptions can be detrimental on many levels, Cooper said. “We want to send a message to legislatures. We have to make clear these kinds of laws are unconstitutional,” she said.
MAP paints a stark picture of the number of kids in need of homes in a report released Wednesday to coincide with the ACLU suit. There are nearly 428,000 children in foster care in the U.S. — and 111,000 of those are awaiting adoption, according to U.S. Department of Health and Human Services stats cited in “Kids Pay the Price: How Religious Exemptions for Child Welfare Agencies Harm Children.”
More than half awaiting adoption – 53% — had been waiting more than two years to be placed; 10% waited more than five years for a permanent home.
“Older children are adopted at lower rates and may exit care without finding a loving, permanent home,” Mushovic said, noting that in 2015, 20,000 children “aged out” of the foster system.
Exemption laws like Michigan’s result in children spending more time in the welfare system instead, according to the MAP report, which is unhealthy for kids and costly for states.
The report notes that diverse families — single parents, unmarried couples, families headed by LGBT parents — are key members of the foster and adoptive world. Same-sex couples are four times more likely than married opposite-sex couples to raise an adopted child and six times more likely to raise foster children, according to the Williams Institute.
And there are other worrisome issues, Mushovic said.
“An agency may decide that LGBT children should only be placed with parents who will place them in conversion therapy programs to try to change their sexual orientation or gender identity. Or what happens when a child welfare worker has religious objections to vaccinations …. and won’t support placements with parents who disagree?”
Michigan’s exemption law requires that agencies who turn down prospective parents refer families to another agency or to Michigan’s Department of Health and Human Services website. But they are not required to inform the applicants of the impetus behind the rejection and the group has the authority to say no even if there are no other nearby service agencies.
“A couple can go to another agency, but a 12-year-old can’t,” Cooper said. “These children are losing the opportunity to get placed.”
OTHER ISSUES IN PLAY
Religious exemption laws have other sweeping implications even beyond the LGBT community, the MAP report suggests:
• An agency that provides counseling services could turn away a family in crisis because the family doesn’t attend a certain place of worship or the parents are unmarried.
• A Christian child placement agency could refuse Jewish parents or a Jewish child placement agency could nix Christian parents.
• Cohabitating unmarried couples could be rejected for consideration.
• Agencies could use the law to argue for practices such as faith-healing of sick children or military-style discipline.
“These laws open a can of worms and are ripe for abuse,” Mushovic said. “It’s not just LGBT parents who can be rejected. It’s a wide range of parents that don’t meet the agency’s religious criteria — and depending on the agency, that could be a big list.”
REJECTED BY AGENCIES
Kristy and Dana Dumont were together for 11 years and married since 2011 when they made a life-changing decision: to start a family by adopting a child. Kristy Dumont, a state employee, was well aware of the need for adoptive families. The couple decided to “open their home and hearts” to one of those kids and chose a residence near Lansing with a top-notch school district, she said.
But when they reached out to state-contracted child placement agencies in their county, they say they were rebuffed by two groups because they are a same-sex couple.
The Dumonts, along with another same-sex couple and a former Michigan foster youth, are now plaintiffs in the suit filed Wednesday.
“So many children in Michigan need homes,” Dumont said. “The state should do all that it can to make sure children in the foster care system have access to all available, qualified families.”
Follow Miller on Twitter @susmiller