The American Civil Liberties Union filed a federal lawsuit Sept. 20 challenging a Michigan law allowing faith-based child placement agencies receiving taxpayer funds to deny services to same-sex couples because of religious objections.
The 2105 law is similar to legislation passed this year in Texas, with backing from the Texas Baptist Christian Life Commission, and laws on the books in five other states allowing faith-based child welfare groups that contract with the state to discriminate against would-be LGBT foster or adoptive parents based on religious doctrine.
The Michigan lawsuit — filed on behalf of two lesbian couples turned away due to religious objections by taxpayer-funded child placement agencies working under contract with the state — does not challenge the right of any private child-placing agency to practice its religion.
It does, however, claim that when the state of Michigan hires private vendors to provide child care services, those contractors should not be allowed to turn away qualified families based on religious criteria.
“Allowing state-contracted agencies to screen out prospective families based on religious criteria not only harms the children most in need, it is also unconstitutional,” said Leslie Cooper, senior staff attorney for the ACLU LGBT & HIV Project. “It violates the First Amendment’s Establishment Clause, which bars the use of religious criteria in the provision of government services like foster care and adoption services for children in state custody. And it violates the Equal Protection Clause by discriminating against same-sex couples.”
Announcement of the lawsuit coincides with release of a 30-second ad, reportedly turned down by Fox News, claiming that “kids pay the price” when states allow adoption decisions to be based on a worker’s individual beliefs rather than the best interests of children.
An accompanying policy report by the Movement Advancement Project, Child Welfare League of America and the National Association of Social Workers says religious exemptions for child welfare providers hurt children and vulnerable families.
“States consistently report that one of the biggest obstacles to providing stability for children in state care is finding interested, qualified families who want to foster or adopt,” the report says. “All kinds of families are needed to care for the thousands of children in the child welfare system, including the hundreds of thousands needing foster homes and those awaiting adoption.”
The report says single parents, unmarried couples, relatives and families headed by LGBT people are an underappreciated and important part of America’s foster and adoptive community. Same-sex couples, for example, are four times more likely than married opposite-sex couples to raise an adopted child and six times more likely to raise foster children. More than 22,000 adopted children currently reside with same-sex couples.
A fifth plaintiff in the ACLU lawsuit is a 33-year-old woman who was in the Michigan foster care system when she was a teenager and objects to her taxpayer dollars funding child-placing agencies that make it harder for foster children to find families because of religious objections by placement agencies. She says such policies could have prevented her and her siblings from finding a stable family, because her foster father is an atheist.
The Michigan Catholic Conference responded with a statement denouncing the lawsuit as “mean-spirited, divisive and intolerant.”
“Michigan’s 2015 adoption law was necessary to promote diversity in child placement and to maintain a private/public partnership that would stabilize the adoption and foster care space for years to come,” said the group authorized as the state’s official public policy voice of the Catholic Church.
In June Texas Gov. Greg Abbott signed into law a bill barring “adverse action” against any child welfare services provider for refusing service that conflicts with sincerely held religious beliefs.
“We believe it is possible to respect sincerely held religious beliefs and work for the best interest of the child,” Texas CLC head Gus Reyes told a Senate panel in April.
Randy Daniels, a vice president at Baptist-affiliated Buckner International, said the agency’s board might get out the business of foster care and adoption rather than risk lawsuits over regulations that go against their faith.
Griff Martin, senior pastor of First Baptist Church in Austin, on the other hand, said in written testimony the law would discriminate against members of his church, mentioning two same-sex couples in the congregation who adopted children in hardship cases that otherwise might never have found a permanent home.