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Faith-based foster agency fights back

Religious Liberty | A Catholic child welfare group in Michigan tries to keep the faith while serving children
by Steve West
Posted 4/23/19, 04:52 pm

St. Vincent Catholic Charities last week sued to keep the Michigan and U.S. departments of Health and Human Services from taking action against it for not placing children for foster care or adoption with same-sex couples.

The complaint, filed in U.S. District Court on April 15, claims the state targeted St. Vincent solely because of its belief that marriage is between one man and one woman. The lawsuit followed a March settlement between Michigan Attorney General Dana Nessel and the American Civil Liberties Union that would prevent the state from contracting with faith-based agencies that would not agree to place children with same-sex couples.

Lansing-based St. Vincent operates a 70-year-old ministry to at-risk children, specializing in finding foster and adoptive homes for hard-to-place older children, sibling groups, and children with special needs. The state is the sole source of foster care and adoption referrals for agencies like St. Vincent.

Nicholas Reaves of the religious liberty law firm Becket, which represents St. Vincent, told me that while the agency continues to operate as it always has, new guidance issued by the state suggests that at some point it might not renew contracts with faith-based child placing groups. “Somewhere between 10 percent to 25 percent of foster care placements in Michigan are by faith-based agencies,” he said. “When faith-based agencies have been forced to shut down in other jurisdictions, the number of placements—particularly for children with disabilities—has gone down significantly.”

Research by Natalie Goodnow at The Heritage Foundation shows that faith-based agencies play a crucial role in attracting new foster and adoptive parents, supplementing state funding, and serving hard-to-place children. “Faith-based agencies have been a cornerstone of the child welfare system for decades,” she wrote in 2018.

A report by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services found that as of Sept. 30, 2018, more than 400,000 children nationwide were in foster care, with 120,000 waiting to be adopted—numbers that have steadily grown over the five-year period covered by the study. St.Vincent’s complaint cites data that shows that of the more than 12,000 children in Michigan’s foster care system, more than 600 exit at age 18 each year without adoptive families.

Not all faith-based agencies have taken positions similar to St. Vincent. After the Michigan attorney general announced the settlement with the ACLU last month, Bethany Christian Services changed its stance and agreed to work with same-sex couples. As of February, Bethany was responsible for the placements of more than 8 percent of children under state supervision. “The mission and beliefs of Bethany Christian Services have not changed,” a Bethany representative told The Detroit News. “We are focused on demonstrating the love of Jesus Christ by serving children in need, and we intend to continue doing so in Michigan.”

Donnas Kinton, executive director of the North Carolina– and Florida-based Amazing Grace Adoptions, told me that many faith-based child placing agencies across the country declined foster care contracts with states out of concern that accepting state money might mean state control or closure in the case of noncompliance. Her concern has proven prescient: Catholic Charities in Illinois and Buffalo, N.Y., have stopped providing foster and adoption services rather than violate their religious convictions. Through her long involvement with the National Christian Adoption Fellowship, which she helped found in 2006, Kinton has watched pressure mount on faith-based agencies. “What has happened in Michigan and elsewhere means at least one thing: a loss for vulnerable children,” she said.

ACLU/Photo by Charles William Kelly ACLU/Photo by Charles William Kelly A former funeral home employee from Detroit who filed a discrimination lawsuit

SCOTUS to hear LGBT employment cases

The Supreme Court on Monday agreed to hear three cases that together could rewrite the legal definition of sex. They have to do with transgender and homosexual employees who claim their bosses discriminated against them on the basis of sex, which they say includes sexual orientation and gender identity. Sex discrimination is prohibited under Title VII of the federal Civil Rights Act of 1964, as is discrimination on the basis of race, color, national origin, and religion.

One case involves a Christian funeral home owner who fired employee Anthony Stephens for insisting on dressing as a woman at work. The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) sued Tom Rost, owner of Detroit-based Harris Funeral Homes, on behalf of Stephens. The funeral home has a dress code with one set of rules for men and another for women. After Stephens informed Rost that he was planning on undergoing sex change surgery and would begin dressing as a woman instead of complying with the men’s dress code, the business ended his employment. Rost testified he could not “in good conscience” permit Stephens to present himself as a woman to grieving clients. And his convictions about God-designed manhood and womanhood prevented him from paying a clothing stipend to help facilitate Stephens’ transition. Stephens turned down an offer for a severance package.

“Court opinions should interpret legal terms according to their plain meaning when Congress passed the law,” said Gary McCaleb, senior counsel at Alliance Defending Freedom (ADF), which is representing Rost. He said the lower court ruling against the funeral home “rewrites federal law and is directly contrary to decisions from other federal appellate courts.”

ADF said in a statement that redefining “sex” in the Civil Rights Act of 1964 to include gender identity would have widespread repercussions, especially on women and girls, as well as religious liberty. The firm pointed out that the EEOC’s own employment manual specifies different dress codes for men and women.

The Supreme Court agreed on Monday to hear other similar cases that relate to homosexuality. In one, New York skydiving instructor Donald Zarda was fired in 2010 after he told a customer he was gay. In the other, Georgian Gerald Bostock claimed he was fired in 2014 for his sexual orientation.

This will be the first time the high court has considered such LGBT cases since Justice Anthony Kennedy, who wrote the opinion in the 2015 landmark same-sex marriage case Obergefell v. Hodges, retired, making way for a conservative majority on the court. The cases are scheduled for oral arguments this fall, with decisions likely coming out in June 2020. —Rachel Lynn Aldrich

Becket Becket Sharonell Fulton (right), a Philadelphia-area foster mother

No relief

A federal appeals court on Monday decided not to offer relief to a Catholic foster care agency after the city of Philadelphia threatened to shut it down over its policy regarding same-sex marriage. Catholic Social Services will not be able to keep operating while its court case proceeds.

The agency has worked with the city for 50 years to place children in foster and adoptive homes. In March 2018, Philadelphia threatened to end its contract with Catholic Social Services, which holds the Biblical view that marriage is between one man and one woman.

Despite the fact that no same-sex couple has ever sought to become foster parents through the agency, the 3rd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled against it. The court found the city was equally enforcing its nondiscrimination laws and there was no evidence the city was engaging in anti-Catholic bias.

“This ruling is devastating to the hundreds of foster children who have been waiting for a family and to the dozens of parents working with Catholic Social Services who have been waiting to foster a child,” said Lori Windham, senior counsel with Becket, the religious liberty law firm representing the agency. “We’re disappointed that the court decided to let the city place politics above the needs of kids and the rights of parents, but we will continue this fight.” —R.L.A.

A ‘non-prayer’ isn’t prayer

The U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit on Friday ruled that the U.S. House of Representatives did not violate religious liberty by denying a man’s request in 2015 to open a session with a “non-prayer.” The House turned down Dan Barker, co-president of the Freedom From Religion Foundation, because the rules require a prayer, not a “secular invocation.” The court found that the House is not violating the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution by requiring a religious prayer. —R.L.A.

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Steve West

Steve is a legal correspondent for WORLD. He is a graduate of World Journalism Institute, Wake Forest University School of Law, and N.C. State University. He worked for 34 years as a federal prosecutor and is now an attorney in private practice. Steve resides with his wife in Raleigh, N.C. Follow him on Twitter @slntplanet.

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  • JerryM
    Posted: Tue, 04/23/2019 06:19 pm

    I would encourage prayer regarding this next round of SCOTUS arguments and rulings which will determine how much further the enemy will advance his agenda on the nation.

    Bethany Christian Services may say it is focused "on demonstrating the love of Jesus Christ" but it obviously does not understand the heart or holiness of God.  The former seeks for the welfare of children in only God's designed order (whether that be two opposite sex parents or one single parent).  The latter understands there are moral standards we are commanded to follow, which are set by God, not men.  I call on Bethany to repent.