Law & the Courts

The ACLU Fights a Michigan Law Protecting Faith-Based Adoption Agencies

(David Becker/Reuters)
It says no to individuals who have benefited from them and want to intervene as defendants in a lawsuit.

Adoptive parents and former foster children in Michigan came forth this week to defend their interest in the protection of faith-based foster care and adoption services in the state of Michigan. After faith-based foster-care and adoption agencies were forced to close in several states, Michigan (and several other states, including Virginia, Texas, and South Dakota) passed laws granting protection to such agencies so they could continue to serve families and children — as they always have done — in accordance with their deeply held religious beliefs.

The Michigan statute stipulates that “a child placing agency shall not be required to provide any services if those services conflict with, or provide any services under circumstances that conflict with, the child placing agency’s sincerely held religious beliefs contained in a written policy, statement of faith, or other document adhered to by the child placing agency.” Such statutes makes sense in the context of deep divisions over emerging rights for same-sex couples, on the one hand, and, on the other, a recognition of the important contributions of faith-based social service organizations to their communities. Faced with entrenched and seemingly irreconcilable differences, statutes such as the one in Michigan reflect a commonsense compromise that allows all concerned parties in a diverse and pluralistic society to work together for the benefit of vulnerable children.

Not content with this compromise, however, Kristy and Dana Dumont, a same-sex couple represented by the American Civil Liberties Union, sued Michigan’s Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS) and Children’s Services Agency, seeking to prevent St. Vincent’s Catholic Charities and other faith-based organizations from partnering with the state of Michigan to provide foster care and adoption services. In support of the lawsuit, and timed to coincide with it, the Movement Advancement Project, a think tank, launched a public-relations campaign in which faith-based agencies and social workers are compared with bigots and child abusers.

Three parties have sought permission to intervene in the lawsuit to protect their interests: St. Vincent Catholic Charities, an adoption agency that has provided a range of services to families and children in Michigan since 1948; Melissa and Chad Buck, who adopted, through St. Vincent’s, a sibling group of children with special needs and, later, the children’s infant sister, and who continue to receive services and support from the agency; and Shamber Flore, a young woman who was adopted from foster care through St. Vincent’s and now volunteers at the agency as a mentor to other young children who have dealt with trauma and abuse.

All three parties argue that they have substantial legal interests in the lawsuit and that the court should allow them to join the lawsuit so they can protect those interests. While the ACLU acknowledged the right of St. Vincent’s Catholic Charities to intervene (and the court allowed the agency to do so), it argued that the Bucks and Ms. Flore have no right to be heard. The Bucks respond that, if the ACLU wins, St. Vincent’s will be forced to immediately close its public foster and adoption programs and that they will lose critical services, including the chance to adopt another child through those programs. Mrs. Buck has written, quite movingly, of the challenges involved in adopting her children and of the invaluable support that St. Vincent’s provided to her and her husband. Ms. Flore risks losing the ability to mentor young people who, like her, have suffered traumatic abuse and neglect. The court heard arguments on Wednesday and is expected to render a decision by the end of April.

In its legal and public-relations efforts, the ACLU seeks to depict faith-based organizations, and those served by them, as bigots who seek to keep children out of loving homes. As I have argued before, however, religious foster-care and adoption agencies do not seek to force anyone to adopt or follow their religious beliefs. Rather, they seek to aid children and families, as they always have done, inspired by their faith and in accordance with it.

Statutes such as the one in Michigan reflect a commonsense compromise that allows all concerned parties in a diverse and pluralistic society to work together for the benefit of vulnerable children.

According to the Michigan statute protecting faith-based foster-care and adoption agencies, if any agency is unwilling to offer services to prospective families because of its sincerely held religious beliefs, it must refer them to another agency that agrees to provide such services or to the website of the Department of Health and Human Services. Indeed, nothing in the Michigan statute prevents unmarried persons or same-sex couples from adopting a child who is in the care of any agency. According to the Becket Fund, representing all three intervening parties, “gay couples working with other agencies have been able to adopt children in St. Vincent’s care in the past.” Moreover, often faith-based agencies excel at placing special-needs children, at placing sibling groups together (as in the case of the Buck family), and at recruiting foster families. According to its motion, last year St. Vincent’s recruited more new foster families than seven out of eight of the other agencies in its tri-county service area. Driving such an agency out of the child-welfare system would only harm children.

The ACLU claims to represent the interests of children, to prevent discrimination, and to promote the liberty interests of all people. The reality is that the ACLU wants to force the closure of an agency that has been faithfully serving children for 70 years. The reality is that the ACLU wants to discriminate against an entire group of people — people of faith — and to prevent them from serving families and children. And the reality is that the ACLU aims to silence the very families and children served by faith-based agencies. Melissa and Chad Buck and Shamber Flore care deeply about children in foster care and receive and give services that would be eliminated if the ACLU succeeded in this lawsuit. They would like to be heard, but the ACLU isn’t interested in their story.

Elizabeth Kirk — Elizabeth Kirk is a lawyer, writer, and consultant who has a special interest in adoption law and policy.

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