The Story: The tale of two Christian foster care agencies reveals the importance of fighting for religious liberty.
The Background: On Thursday a Catholic adoption agency won a significant victory for the families and children it serves.
The state of Michigan contracts with private child placing agencies (CPA), like St. Vincent Catholic Charities, to provide foster care and adoption services. Private CPAs place children in licensed foster and adoptive homes and assist prospective foster or adoptive parents in applying to the state for licensure, a necessary legal step to adopt a child.
As part of the application process, a CPA performs a home evaluation of the prospective parent or parents that includes a written assessment and a recommendation that a license be granted or denied. Based partly on the CPA’s recommendation, the state itself decides whether to license the prospective foster or adoptive parent. Some Christian CPAs, including St. Vincent, refuse to provide written recommendations and endorsements of unmarried or LGBTQ couples because it is inconsistent with their religious mission. In the past, Christian CPAs would simply refer unmarried or LGBTQ couples to another CPA.
In 2017, the ACLU sued the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services on behalf of two same-sex couples for allowing groups like St. Vincent and Bethany Christian Services to make such referrals. While the state initially defended the suit, the state’s attorney general settled the case and established a policy that CPAs could not turn away or refer to another contracted CPA an “otherwise potentially qualified LGBTQ individual or same-sex couple.” After the change Bethany Christian Services, an evangelical organization and the state’s largest Christian CPA, said they would comply with all “legal contract requirements” to continue operations in Michigan.
St. Vincent, though, fought the new policy. In April St. Vincent joined a former foster child and the parents of five adopted children with special needs in filing a lawsuit claiming Michigan had violated the Free Exercise Clause of the First Amendment. On September 26, 2019, the district court agreed, and ordered the State of Michigan to continue working with St. Vincent while this case continues. The court ruled that “the State’s real goal is not to promote non-discriminatory child placements, but to stamp out St. Vincent’s religious belief and replace it with the State’s own.”
“Our nation is facing a foster care crisis, and we are so glad that Michigan’s foster children will continue having all hands on deck to help them find loving forever homes,” said Lori Windham, senior counsel at Becket, a non-profit, public-interest legal firm. “The Bucks and St. Vincent Catholic Charities won a victory in Michigan, but there is still work to be done to ensure that faith-based agencies can contribute to ending our nation’s foster care crisis.”
Why It Matters: This ruling in Michigan highlights an important reality in America: we will lose our religious freedoms if we refuse to fight.
Unfortunately, too many Christians believe that caving to the state’s violation of religious liberty is necessary and prudent. For example, last April the CEO of Bethany Christian Services, Chris Palusky, wrote an op-ed for Christianity Today explaining why his organization was conceding to the state’s demands. Palusky explained that his group still believes the Bible is the living Word of God and that God’s plan for marriage and family as it is outlined in the Scriptures. “At the same time, it is clear to us that Bethany cannot cede the foster care space completely to the secular world and leave children without the opportunity to experience Jesus through our loving care,” Palusky added. “Therefore, we will continue foster care operations in Michigan and serve all families in Michigan for foster care and foster care adoption in compliance with our contract requirements.”
Bethany was faced with the difficult decision of complying with the state and continuing to serve families or risk shutting their doors. But St. Vincent was faced with the same choice and refused to bend the knee to an oppressive and unjust state government. Because the Catholic group refused to back down, they won a temporary victory—and will likely win in the long term. More importantly, they showed that refusing to violate one’s conscience is worth whatever sacrifices might need to be made.
We shouldn’t be too hard on Bethany, though, since they were unsure if they would have the support of the courts—or even of their fellow believers. A recent poll commissioned by the Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission found that only one-third of evangelicals consider religious liberty to be a top political concern. That number falls to 28 percent among the youngest cohort and to 13 percent of black Protestants. If we don’t care about religious liberty as individuals we can hardly complain when our religious institutions fail to hold the line when their freedom—and organizational existence—is threatened.
All believers in America should care, though, and we must continue to fight for our most essential freedoms. As Christians we care about foster care because we understand the importance of family. We should be just as concerned about whether those children are able to grow up in homes and in a country where they are free to follow Christ.