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Michigan's new rule: Catholic organizations must abandon beliefs or stop serving children

Lawsuit challenges state agency ultimatum that would harm thousands of children, families

Friday, Apr 26, 2019
GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. – Alliance Defending Freedom attorneys asked a state court Thursday to stop Michigan officials from illegally targeting a child welfare provider because of its religious beliefs. Catholic Charities West Michigan, one of the region’s largest social services providers, faces closure of its adoption and foster care ministry if it doesn’t change its policy prioritizing the placement of children in homes with a mother and father.

“Every child deserves a permanent home with loving parents,” said ADF Legal Counsel Jeremiah Galus. “Protecting Catholic Charities West Michigan does nothing to interfere with other providers who hold different convictions. But eliminating this nonprofit, faith-based provider means fewer children are reunited with their birth parents or placed with loving adoptive parents. Michigan’s new rule forces a Christian community to abandon or alter the religious beliefs that motivate its ministry in the first place—a move that defies both logic and the law.”

For more than 70 years, Catholic Charities has served Western Michigan by offering a wide array of child welfare, family preservation, and behavioral health services. Within the past decade, the charity has placed 4,500 children in homes and annually serves more than 21,000 individuals through its more than 35 ministries. Its foster care ministry focuses on family reunification and provides support well above the state’s minimum requirements. Catholic Charities offers monthly foster parent training opportunities; funding for children’s medical, dental, clothing, and extracurricular needs; and transportation for birth parents so they can be involved with children’s activities, despite temporary separation. The ministry also maintains a Family Visit House, where parents participating in a reunification plan can visit their children on a regular basis in a comfortable, homelike environment supervised by trained staff.

According to the lawsuit, Catholic Charities West Michigan v. Michigan Department of Health and Human Services, the department changed its policies as part of a settlement agreement in another lawsuit, Dumont v. Lyon. In January 2017, the ACLU sued the state agency on behalf of two same-sex couples to stop it from contracting with faith-based foster care and adoption providers throughout the state. Although Michigan’s previous attorney general defended the agency’s ability to contract with such providers, the current attorney general, Dana Nessel, has refused to do so and has instead instructed the agency to exclude faith-based providers from contracts if they won’t agree to violate their own beliefs about marriage and family.

“Adoption and foster care providers exist to serve children and for decades Catholic Charities has done that well,” explained ADF Senior Counsel Kate Anderson. “Michigan law already affirms that faith-based ministries provide essential services to the state and may continue to serve children in a manner consistent with their beliefs. The state has no business ignoring the law, implementing Attorney General Nessel’s hostile political agenda, or punishing a religious organization because of its Catholic identity and beliefs. Children in Grand Rapids, throughout Michigan, and across the country will suffer if this hostility toward faith-based adoption providers becomes the status quo.”

The lawsuit asks the court to protect Catholic Charities from being singled out, punished, or disfavored because of its religious beliefs—beliefs that motivate its care for children, birth parents, and other vulnerable members of the community. The lawsuit further argues that the new rule violates a 2015 state law specifically enacted to ensure that providers like Catholic Charities could maintain contracts with the state while maintaining their religious beliefs.

James R. Wierenga, one of more than 3,300 attorneys allied with ADF, is serving as local counsel for Catholic Charities West Michigan in the case, filed in the Michigan Court of Claims.
  • One-page summary: Catholic Charities West Michigan v. Michigan Department of Health and Human Services
  • Pronunciation guide: Wierenga (Weer-ENG’-uh)

Alliance Defending Freedom is an alliance-building, non-profit legal organization that advocates for the right of people to freely live out their faith.

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