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Michigan settles lawsuit with religious organization, allowing it to deny adoptions to same-sex couples

Gay couple with son in park
Africa Studio - stock.adobe.com
Gay couple with son in park

Faith-based adoption and foster agencies in Michigan can again refuse to place children with same-sex or unmarried couples.

A federal judge approved a settlement Wednesday that the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services signed with Lansing-based St. Vincent Catholic Charities after the organization challenged the state agency's discrimination policy.

The settlement follows a June Supreme Court decision that limited the state's ability to enforce non-discrimination policies, in particular on the basis of religious faith. Michigan officials said the Supreme Court decision was binding on the state.

"While this outcome is not what we hoped for, we are committed to providing support to the many members in the LGBTQ+ community who want to open their hearts and their homes," said Demetrius Starling, executive director of the MDHHS Children's Services Agency, in a press release.

Michigan contracts with private agencies to place children in need with new families.

"MDHHS recognizes, values, affirms and appreciates the significant contributions made by the LGBTQ+ families caring for children in foster care and those choosing to adopt," Starling said. "We could not do this work without them."

In 2017, two same-sex couples filed a complaint challenging the state's contracts with taxpayer-funded, state-contracted foster care and adoption agencies that refused to provide services to same-sex couples.

To resolve that complaint, in 2019, Attorney General Dana Nessel announced a deal to end contracts with faith-based organizations that wouldn't place children with same-sex couples. That prompted St. Vincent to challenge the state in a new lawsuit.

"St. Vincent was looking at the threat of closure and not being able to provide any more services for foster and adoptive children and families. Thanks to this settlement, they're going to be able to keep their doors open," said Lori Windham, lead council for the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty, which is representing St. Vincent.

Windham said St. Vincent will not discriminate against children, regardless of race, gender, sexual orientation or class.

Same-sex couples can adopt children from St. Vincent, Windham said, as long as the couples partner with other agencies who can endorse the couple and provide them with a home study.

Michigan officials said they were not able to comment for this story because of pending litigation.

The state will not take action against St. Vincent or refuse the agency a license due to its choice not to place children in same-sex households, according to the settlement agreement. The state will also pay the agency $550,000 in attorney fees and court costs.

Though disappointed by the settlement, Jay Kaplan with the American Civil Liberties Union of Michigan, said he is looking to state officials to support LGBTQ people looking to adopt.

"What we need to do is to make sure that the state is going to ensure that there's going to be the same opportunities for LGBTQ individuals and couples to be able to become foster care parents," Kaplan said.

In particular, Kaplan called on the state to identify counties and areas in Michigan that only have faith-based foster and adoption agencies. Kaplan would like to see more options for LGBTQ families in those areas, he said.

Michigan officials said they will soon announce plans to meet the service gaps and any other needs of LGBTQ+ families and those wishing to foster and adopt.

Briana Rice is Michigan Public's criminal justice reporter. She's focused on what Detroiters need to feel safe and whether they're getting it.