Judge Rebukes MI Dem For Targeting Religious Foster Care

Judge criticizes attorney general for anti-religious statements

The Michigan State Capital building (Photo by Bill Pugliano/Getty Images)
September 28, 2019

A federal court ruled that Michigan's Democratic attorney general demonstrated discriminatory "hostility" when she attempted to crack down on religious foster care agencies.

District Court judge Robert Jonker said Michigan attorney general Dana Nessel demonstrated "a hostility towards a religious viewpoint" throughout her campaign and in instituting a policy that would have shuttered religious adoption and foster care agencies if they refused to place children in the homes of same-sex couples. Her accusation that volunteers and staffers at foster care centers were "hate mongers" went to the "heart of the case," he said in his ruling.

"This case is not about whether same-sex couples can be great parents. They can," Jonker wrote in his decision. "What this case is about is whether St. Vincent may continue to do this work and still profess and promote the traditional Catholic belief that marriage as ordained by God is for one man and one woman."

The ruling was a major victory for foster families and St. Vincent Catholic Charities, which filed the suit challenging Nessel's policy. Melissa Buck, one of the plaintiffs in the case and a longtime foster mother, said she was pleased that she could continue to care for children in need of a home.

"St. Vincent has been with us every step of our journey: answering every phone call, coming with us to doctor's appointments, even bringing us food, as we strive to give our five beautiful children the best future they can have," Buck said in a press release. "St. Vincent brought our family together, and I'm happy to know they can keep doing their great work helping children find homes."

The court issued the ruling in light of Nessel's public statements during her 2018 campaign for attorney general, as well as her rhetoric in office. During her campaign, Nessel promised to shut down what she described as "scam pregnancy crisis centers." She also referred to Catholic adoptive agencies that declined to serve LGBT couples as "hate mongers," and said the only purpose for a protective law for Catholic agencies was "discriminatory animus." Jonker said such statements "create a strong inference that the State's real target is the religious beliefs and confessions of St. Vincent, and not discriminatory conduct" against any individuals.

Less than a week after taking office, Nessel also joined a lawsuit that challenged moral and religious exemptions to the Affordable Care Act's contraceptive coverage requirement. In March, lawyers for the AG's office and the American Civil Liberties Union reached a settlement prohibiting religious adoption agencies from turning away LGBT parents. The agreement effectively overturned a 2015 state law that protected the agencies from providing services that conflicted with their religious beliefs.

In April, St. Vincent preemptively filed a lawsuit challenging the settlement, anticipating that it would be found in non-compliance with the policy. The charity was represented by Becket Law, a non-profit legal organization dedicated to religious liberty. The firm welcomed the court decision, saying it would ensure that "faith-based agencies can continue working with the State to find more homes for foster children."

"Thanks to the ruling, St. Vincent will be able to continue serving foster children in Michigan and their selfless foster families. More than 13,000 foster kids in Michigan need help, and we need all hands on deck," Becket Law attorney Lori Windham tweeted.

A spokesman for the attorney general's office told the Washington Free Beacon that the agency is reviewing the decision and determining whether it will appeal.

The Catholic Association Foundation, a religious liberty advocacy group, criticized Nessel for hatching "a backdoor agreement to force ideological conformity in the state’s foster care and adoption program" through legal pressure. Religious adoption agencies across the country have shut down in the face of pressure from government regulators over their beliefs on marriage. The St. Vincent decision comes as the Catholic Church wages a similar lawsuit in Philadelphia. Andrea Picciotti-Bayer, the association's legal adviser, said the Michigan case should provide a blueprint for how the courts should approach the issue.

"A federal judge has stepped in to stop their backroom deal and affirm the rule of law," she said in a statement. "Both state and federal law protect faith-based agencies like St. Vincent Catholic Charities to find loving homes for needy kids without having to abandon their religious teachings on the family."

St. Vincent's contract with the state government for its care services is scheduled to expire on Monday, Sept. 30.