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Michigan deal bars LGBT discrimination in state adoptions

DAVID EGGERT
Michigan Attorney General Dana Nessel attends an event for Democratic presidential candidate Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, D-N.Y., in Clawson, Mich., Monday, March 18, 2019. The Michigan attorney general's office has settled a lawsuit by same-sex couples who say their rights have been violated by faith-based adoption agencies that don't want to work with gays and lesbians. Under the settlement announced Friday, March 22, 2019 the state says it will enforce non-discrimination provisions in its foster care and adoption agency contracts. Nessel initiated settlement talks. She says discrimination in foster care and adoption services is "illegal." (AP Photo/Paul Sancya)

LANSING, Mich. (AP) — Faith-based adoption agencies that are paid by the state of Michigan will no longer be able to turn away LGBT couples or individuals because of religious objections under a legal settlement announced Friday.

The agreement was reached between Democratic Attorney General Dana Nessel's office and lawyers for the American Civil Liberties Union, which sued the state in 2017 on behalf of two lesbian couples and a woman who was in foster care in her teens.

"Discrimination in the provision of foster care case management and adoption services is illegal, no matter the rationale," Nessel, who pursued settlement talks after taking office in January, said in a statement. "Limiting the opportunity for a child to be adopted or fostered by a loving home not only goes against the state's goal of finding a home for every child, it is a direct violation of the contract every child-placing agency enters into with the state."

Michigan, like most states, contracts with private agencies to place children from troubled homes with new families. The lawsuit alleged that the same-sex couples were turned away by Catholic Charities and Bethany Christian Services because they are gay.

A 2015 Republican-enacted law says child-placement agencies are not required to provide any services that conflict with their sincerely held religious beliefs. But the definition of services does not include those provided under a contract with the state Department of Health and Human Services, according to the suit and resulting settlement .

The Becket Fund for Religious Liberty, which intervened in the case on behalf of St. Vincent Catholic Charities and others, accused Nessel and the ACLU of trying to stop the state from working with faith-based adoption agencies.

"The result of that will be tragic," said attorney Lori Windham. "Thousands of children will be kept from finding the loving homes they deserve. This settlement violates the state law protecting religious adoption agencies."

But two plaintiffs, Kristy and Dana Dumont of Dimondale near Lansing, issued a statement saying they were "so happy" for same-sex couples who are interested in fostering or adopting children.

"We are hopeful that this will mean more families for children, especially those who have been waiting years for a family to adopt them," they said. "And we can't wait to welcome one of those children into our family."

The ACLU, which called the settlement a "victory" for nearly 12,000 children in foster care, has said the suit was filed after the office of former GOP Attorney General Bill Schuette declined to speak to it about possible discrimination. Nessel, who is gay, has criticized the law. As a private attorney, she successfully fought to overturn Michigan's ban on gay marriage.

As of February, Bethany Christian Services, Catholic Charities and St. Vincent were responsible for more than 1,600, or 12 percent, of the state's 13,000-plus foster care and adoption cases, said state spokeswoman Bob Wheaton.

Under the settlement, the state must enforce non-discrimination provisions in its contracts in cases where agencies accept referrals but refuse to work with LGBT people interested in fostering or adopting any children they have accepted. Turning away otherwise potentially qualified LGBT individuals would be prohibited, as would refusal to provide orientation or training, perform a home study or process applications.

In a 2017 court filing, St. Vincent Catholic Charities said it recruited more new families than seven of the eight other adoption agencies in the capital region, and seven of those agencies were willing to work with unmarried or same-sex couples. The agency said it would be unable to keep its adoption and foster programs going without the state contract.

The settlement drew both praise and criticism.

The liberal advocacy group Progress Michigan called it a "great step toward a more welcoming and inclusive Michigan." But a top Republican, Senate Majority Leader Mike Shirkey, of Clarklake, said he was "deeply saddened and outraged," and accused Nessel of furthering her "personal political agenda."

"Nessel's apparent disregard for the laws of our state, the Constitution and the well-being of thousands of children is an affront to all citizens," he said.

Nessel spokeswoman Kelly Rossman-McKinney countered that the attorney general "strongly supports" giving every child who is a ward of the state a "forever home. That is the compassionate agenda of a mom."

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