BY DREW HOWARD
The ACLU filed a lawsuit against the state of Michigan on Sept. 20 for allowing child-placement agencies to use religious beliefs as an excuse to discriminate against same-sex couples. The 22-page complaint is backed by five plaintiffs, including same-sex couple Kristy and Dana Dumont. The couple was denied adoption services by Bethany Christian Services and Catholic Charities due to their sexual orientation.
The litigation contests the statute – which was signed into law in 2015 by Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder – violates the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment by favoring particular religious views and the Fourteenth Amendment for denying equal protection to LGBT families.
The Dumont’s sought help from these agencies in particular because of their proximity, stating it would be easier on the prospective child to be placed in a home near their friends and family. Dana said she felt angry, hurt and devastated following the rejections.
“We felt hopeless,” she said. “They didn’t even know us and made the decision solely on who we’re married to.”
Other plaintiffs in the lawsuit include a Detroit couple, Erin and Rebecca Busk-Sutton, and Jennifer Ludolph, a foster parent and former foster child. Erin and Rebecca were also turned away from Bethany Christian Services as the agency claimed same-sex couples were not in their area of expertise.
The lawsuit challenges the 2015 Michigan law that gives faith-based child-placement agencies permission to refuse services to people based on religious beliefs. Leslie Cooper from the ACLU said such a policy violates the Constitution, and does no good for the 13,000 children currently in the Michigan foster care system.
“By allowing this, the state is making it even harder for children to find loving homes,” Cooper said. “The First Amendment freedom of religion guarantee would forbid the state from imposing a religious litmus test on prospective foster or adoptive families.”
Jay Kaplan, staff attorney at the ACLU of Michigan’s Nancy Katz and Margo Dichtemiller LGBT Project, also slammed the 2015 law, saying that it actually harms the welfare of foster children.
“Allowing an agency to discriminate could be the difference between a child finding a permanent, loving home and remaining in the system,” Kaplan said. “Michigan’s child welfare services must put child welfare first.”
Aside from Bethany and Catholic Charities, Kaplan said it’s unclear how many Michigan child-placement services are actively discriminating couples like the ones in this lawsuit. He added it’s also unclear how many same-sex couples have been denied adoption services since the 2015 law was put in place.
The Human Rights Campaign compiled a list of LGBTQ-friendly adoption agencies across
the nation, with two Michigan agencies making the cut. Agencies made the list by passing 10 benchmarks, among these being client non-discrimination and comprehensive staff training.
Fostering Futures is one such Michigan agency on the list. Katie Liparoto, a licensing worker at Fostering Futures, said it’s their mission to serve all families regardless of sexual orientation.
“I think our agency is rare in the state of Michigan,” Liparoto said. “All these kids need are love and structure and stability.”
Michigan is one of several states with laws allowing for discrimination including Alabama, South Dakota, Texas, Mississippi, North Dakota and Virginia. Cooper said there have not been any legal challenges in these other states yet.
Ineke Mushovic, executive director of the Movement Advancement Project, also spoke out in support of the lawsuit. MAP is an independent think tank that works to speed equality for the LGBT community.
Mushovic said laws like the one in Michigan open a can of worms and are “ripe” for abuse.
“Most child welfare workers are good people who want to do the right thing, but there’s a wide range of moral and religious beliefs out there,” Mushovic said. “Saying that we should prioritize all of these individual beliefs over the best interest of the kids is bad policy run amok.”