Michigan lawmakers debate faith-based adoption practices

Mar 5, 2015

Legislation that would allow faith-based adoption agencies to refuse to work with LGBT couples or anyone else based on moral or religious grounds is headed to the floor of the state House.

A state House committee approved the bills as the US Supreme Court prepares to hear arguments on same-sex marriage. The Supreme Court arguments will most likely take place in late April, but state House Republicans aren’t waiting to see what the justices decide in the case challenging Michigan’s ban on same-sex marriage and the rights that go with marriage -- rights like jointly adopting children.

Forced to choose

The House Committee on Families, Seniors and Children approved the bills on party line votes, and rejected amendments proposed by Democrats on party-line votes. Some of the rejected amendments would have required adoption agencies to put “the best interests of the child” ahead of religious considerations.

Committee Chairman Thomas Hooker (R-Byron Center) says he’s wants to make sure that faith-based adoption services that take state money aren’t forced to choose between their values and their mission to find homes for kids.

“It would not be in our best interest to eliminate some of those providers and approximately 45 percent of the kids that are adopted or fostered in the state of Michigan are faith-based organizations that are providing those homes, so finding families and encouraging families is something we want to continue,” he said. “…I think it’s protection for the faith-based organizations with the state of Michigan is a situation that we’re in need of finding homes for many kids.”

“There have been activists that have tried to get, because they don’t agree with Catholic teaching, they want to get Catholics out of the public square and want to make it one size fits all,” said Tom Hickson of the Michigan Catholic Conference, which has been trying for years to get this legislation adopted. Hickson says faith-based protections would ensure a “diversity” of agencies working to place children.

He says in Massachusetts, Illinois, San Francisco, and Washington DC, for example, there have been efforts to either push faith-based agencies out of the adoption business or force them to ignore their own beliefs.

Placing more children

But adoption researcher Jean Howard, recently retired from the University of Illinois Center for Adoption Studies, says if placing the most children is the top concern, Michigan should go in a different direction.

She says in states that require agencies to work with same-sex couples, faith-based services have generally adapted, and opened their doors to LGBT families-- and the result has been more children placed in permanent homes.

“We have empirical evidence to support this widely held view that states that have anti-gay policies end up with fewer children adopted from foster care,” she said.

Howard says LGBT couples are also more likely to take in the hardest-to-adopt special needs kids.

Howard’s work was cited in the federal district court decision that struck down Michigan’s same-sex marriage ban – one of the cases that’s now before the US Supreme Court. The decision said allowing same-sex couples to marry would be good for kids in those families and good for kids who still need a permanent home.

Dana Nessel is an attorney for April DeBoer and Jayne Rowse, the lesbian couple that challenged Michigan’s same-sex marriage ban, which started out as an adoption rights case. She says the Legislature should heed that research.

“If you are a proponent of this type of bill, you honestly have to concede that you just dislike gay people more than you care about the needs of foster care kids,” says Nessel. “It’s as simple as that.”

Nessel she says hopes for a Supreme Court ruling later this year that’s not only a victory for same-sex marriage, but is also so sweeping it makes the debate taking place now in the Michigan Legislature a moot point.