A federal appeals court on July 21 handed a Christian adoption agency in New York another opportunity to challenge a state law that would force it to shut down or violate its beliefs about sexuality and marriage.
The unanimous panel of the 2nd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals threw out a lower court’s dismissal of Syracuse-based New Hope Family Services’ lawsuit, ruling it could move forward to trial. In language reminiscent of the Supreme Court’s decision in favor of Christian baker Jack Phillips in Masterpiece Cakeshop v. Colorado Civil Rights Commission, the 2nd Circuit said it had “a sufficient ‘suspicion’ of religious animosity to warrant ‘pause’ for discovery before dismissing New Hope’s claim as implausible.”
Like many other religious child placement agencies, New Hope does not place children with unmarried or same-sex couples because of its beliefs on sexuality and marriage. It refers applicants it cannot accept to other adoption agencies. The state licenses New Hope but does not fund it. In 2018, the New York Office of Children and Family Services informed the agency its policy violated a state nondiscrimination mandate and told it to change its rules or shut down.
A different case, Fulton v. City of Philadelphia, heads to the Supreme Court later this year and could affect the outcome of New Hope’s lawsuit. Several foster parents and Catholic Social Services are challenging the city of Philadelphia’s policy of cutting off referrals to agencies that do not work with same-sex couples who want to foster children.
The plaintiffs hope the high court will reconsider its 1990 decision in Employment Division v. Smith, in which the justices ruled the government can enforce laws that burden religious beliefs or practices as long as the laws are “neutral” or “generally applicable.” In New Hope’s case, the 2nd Circuit did not feel a need to wait for a decision in Fulton because it found possible religious animosity. But when the case starts back up at the U.S. District Court level, the judge could decide to wait for a ruling in Fulton, as the 6th Circuit did in a similar case in May involving Michigan’s St. Vincent Catholic Charities.
“Government officials are not being neutral when they single out religious organizations for hostile treatment based on their beliefs about marriage,” said Alliance Defending Freedom’s John Bursch, who represented New Hope. “That’s a flagrant violation of the U.S. Constitution.” —S.W.