New Michigan law lets adoption agencies decline referrals

Critics says the law amounts to government-sanctioned discrimination against gay couples. It is expected to be challenged in court before it takes effect in 90 days.

Paul Sancya/AP/File
Jayne Rowse, left, and April DeBoer, right, sit with their adopted children at their home in Hazel Park, Mich. Each woman has adopted two kids, but they can’t jointly adopt them because joint adoption in Michigan is tied to marriage.

Gov. Rick Snyder on Thursday signed a law letting private adoption agencies with state contracts decline to participate in referrals against their religious beliefs, despite criticism that it amounts to government-sanctioned discrimination against gay couples.

The Republican governor told The Associated Press that the legislation codifies an existing practice within the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services, which relies on private agencies to help find temporary or permanent homes for 13,000 children in foster care at any given time.

"Our goal is to get the maximum number of kids adopted by loving families regardless of the loving family's background, whether they're straight or gay," Mr. Snyder said in a phone interview.

Only two other states, Virginia and North Dakota, have laws that are explicit in allowing private adoption agencies to turn away prospective parents for religious reasons.

Snyder acted a day after the bills cleared the GOP-controlled Legislature almost entirely along party lines. Opponents compared the legislation – which is expected to be challenged in court before it takes effect in 90 days – to a religious objections law in Indiana that had to be softened after a backlash.

The ACLU of Michigan said agencies covered by the law are "receiving state money to perform a public function" and are legally obligated to act in children's best interests.

"There is nothing about this shameful legislation that helps vulnerable kids find homes," said deputy director Rana Elmir, who warned that same-sex couples, religious minorities, single parents and others will be affected. The Human Rights Campaign, the largest US gay rights group, said Snyder has "utter disdain" for the welfare of children and the new law will set the state back.

Snyder denied that the law discriminates against gays or others, saying "this isn't about that" and reiterating his past threat to veto a broader religious freedom bill unless the state's civil rights law is expanded to prohibit discrimination based on sexual orientation.

The Michigan Catholic Conference and others have lobbied for the adoption legislation for years, but it gained traction ahead of the US Supreme Court's expected ruling on gay marriage in coming weeks.

Snyder said he received letters from Catholic Charities and Bethany Christian Services, which on average do 25 to 30 percent of the Michigan's foster care adoptions and had expressed concern that if the state's policy changed in the future, they would be forced to close their doors. In 2011, Illinois ended long-standing contracts with Catholic Charities to provide foster care and adoptions because of the group's practice of referring unmarried couples to other agencies.

"This is about making sure we get the largest number of kids in forever families," Snyder said. "The more opportunities and organizations we have that are doing a good job of placing people in loving families, isn't that better for all of us?"

Rep. Andrea LaFontaine, a Columbus Township Republican and sponsor of the main bill, said when agencies are forced to close rather than violate their religious beliefs, "it results in a lack of services, longer wait times and fewer child placements."

Under Michigan's law, an agency with religious objections to a prospective adoption will have to refer an applicant to another "willing and able" agency or to a state website listing other providers.

The measure specifies that child-placing agencies do not have to provide services in conflict with their "sincerely held" religious beliefs, meaning they can decline a referral for foster care management or adoption services without fear of an "adverse action" by the state or local governments.

Private agencies – which received $19.9 million from the state for adoption services in the last fiscal year – will be able to cite the law as a defense in judicial or administrative proceedings. If they decline to provide services, they must give applicants a written list of other adoption or foster care providers.

Michigan has 105 licensed adoption and foster care agencies, approximately 25 percent of which are faith-based, according to lawmakers.

One of the gay marriage lawsuits before the Supreme Court began as a Michigan adoption case, because the state does not allow unmarried couples to jointly adopt.

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