Surrendering to the state
When state officials demanded U.S. foster agencies place children with same-sex couples, Catholic agencies refused. The largest evangelical agency did not.
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When Chad and Melissa Buck mark milestones in their family, the couple celebrates progress some parents barely notice. Melissa teared up last year when she realized her daughter had started smiling in pictures: “That’s huge for her.”
It’s huge because the Bucks’ children began their lives in a very different home filled with abuse and neglect. The Michigan couple fostered and then adopted three siblings, ages 4 years to 18 months. They later fostered and adopted two more children, including a biological sibling of the first three.
Melissa said they learned the oldest boy had taken care of his younger brother and sister for long periods of time and endured physical abuse if he couldn’t keep the baby quiet: “It took a long time for my son to learn to be a child.”
Some 13,000 children are currently in Michigan’s foster care system. Nearly 300 are eligible for adoption. Others hope to be reunited with a family member, but they need placement in foster care until their cases are resolved.
Finding homes isn’t always easy, and state and local governments often contract with private agencies, including Christian groups, to recruit foster care families. More than 400,000 children are in the foster care system in the United States.
The Bucks met their children through St. Vincent Catholic Charities, an agency that has served Michigan for 70 years. Bethany Christian Services, an evangelical organization with offices in 35 states, facilitates foster care for more than 1,000 children in Michigan.
But earlier this year, the Christian groups faced a government ultimatum: accept applications from same-sex couples for foster care and foster care adoption or lose the legal right to conduct foster care in Michigan. The Catholic group refused. Bethany complied.
At the time, Bethany President Chris Palusky said his group was disappointed with the Michigan outcome but wanted to continue providing foster services to vulnerable children in the state. (Both groups had been referring same-sex couples to other agencies in the area.)
St. Vincent fought the Michigan mandate, citing the Catholic group’s religious beliefs. The Bucks joined the lawsuit, saying the government shouldn’t sever the agency from foster care because of its religious principles.
On Sept. 26, a Michigan court ruled in the agency’s favor: A preliminary injunction will allow St. Vincent to continue foster care while the case winds through the courts.
A similar case is underway in Philadelphia, where city officials delivered a similar mandate to Christian groups last year: agree to approve same-sex foster parents or lose contracts to facilitate foster care. A Catholic agency refused. Bethany complied.
Bethany’s decision to give in to government demands drew national attention: The Christian group is one of the largest adoption agencies in the country and has been well known among evangelicals for decades, particularly for its work in private adoptions. That work has grown to include foster care in a handful of states and services for refugees and migrants in others.
(Foster and refugee services make up a large proportion of Bethany’s efforts: The agency’s 2018 financial report showed it raised $17 million in private donations and received more than $76 million in reimbursements for children’s services. A chunk of those funds goes directly to foster families caring for children.)
As adoption rates drop, largely due to a steep decline in international adoptions, some Christian agencies see the burgeoning foster care population as an important opportunity for Christians who want to help vulnerable children.
But government contracts bring government scrutiny, and some faith-based agencies increasingly face a stark choice: hold true to all their beliefs or compromise on some.
The dilemmas are difficult when vulnerable children are involved, but the decisions also have broader implications. Indeed, Joe Carter of the Gospel Coalition noted an important lesson from the recent ruling in Michigan: “We will lose our religious freedoms if we refuse to fight.”
AT LEAST EIGHT STATES have passed laws specifically prohibiting discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation for same-sex couples participating in the foster care system, according to the Movement Advancement Project.
Ten states have laws or policies aimed at protecting faith-based groups. Historically, the Christian argument has been simple: The Bible teaches that God created marriage as a covenant between a man and a woman, and it violates Scripture to approve practices that go against that teaching.
But religious freedom laws aren’t a bulwark against state interference. Legislators in Michigan passed such a law in 2015—just four years before the state demanded Christian groups reverse course on foster care.
Bill Blacquiere, then president of Bethany Christian Services, made a robust argument for why the religious freedom law was important and why Christian agencies shouldn’t be compelled to go against their consciences.
In a letter to the governor, Blacquiere wrote that the faith of some Christian groups already was under attack, with some local governments arguing “faith-based agencies must choose between their desire to help children and families and their fidelity to their religious principles.”
He noted that in other states, some child-placement agencies (most notably Catholics) “had to abandon their faith or abandon the children they serve.” Blacquiere called it “an untenable choice.”
The Michigan law passed, but the American Civil Liberties Union filed suit in September 2017, saying the government shouldn’t allow any agency to decline working with same-sex couples, even if the practice violates the agency’s religious beliefs.
In 2018, Dana Nessel won office as attorney general of Michigan after promising she would not defend the religious liberty law in court. She had described its proponents as “hate-mongers.”
Earlier this year, Nessel reached a settlement agreement with the ACLU that gutted the law’s intention to protect religious groups and required faith-based agencies to provide endorsements of same-sex couples for foster care.
‘We will lose our religious freedoms if we refuse to fight.’ —Joe Carter of the Gospel Coalition
The “untenable choice” had become an unavoidable conflict. The Catholics dug in. Bethany gave in.
Dan Jarvis of the Michigan Family Forum says he wished Bethany had joined the Catholic agency in its lawsuit. Given Bethany’s history of handling so many cases in a state with a shortage of foster care homes, Jarvis says he felt Bethany “held all the cards” to push back against government interference.
And it’s worrisome if the agency’s concession to government demands could undercut other Christians groups seeking to make a case for their own religious liberty in similar situations.
Why didn’t Bethany join the legal action?
Kris Faasse, a vice president at Bethany, said the organization had to consider the probabilities of winning in court and how long the case might drag on and then balance that with its desire to continue serving children in foster care.
The Sept. 26 ruling in St. Vincent’s favor shows the Catholic group has at least some probability of prevailing. A Michigan judge found “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.”
OFFICIALS IN PHILADELPHIA already had done some stamping out of their own.
In early 2018, city officials issued an urgent call for 300 foster care families to step forward. A week later, the city announced it would halt its work with two agencies working to find families for children: Officials said Catholic Social Services and Bethany Christian Services must agree to approve same-sex couples for foster care.
The Catholic agency refused. Bethany’s local office in Philadelphia wanted to comply in order to continue. Bethany’s national board voted to approve the office’s decision. (At least one national board member resigned in protest.)
Meanwhile, the controversy caught the attention of another local Bethany office hundreds of miles away. In Mississippi, Bethany’s operations didn’t include contracts with the government to provide foster care. But Will Thompson, who had served on the local Bethany board for years, said the decision in Philadelphia still reflected on local branches connected to the national office.
“Our whole point was that we’re not going to be defined by the culture,” he said. “We’re going to be defined by what we feel are Biblical principles having to do with family, marriage, and child-rearing.”
Other local board members agreed, and they unanimously decided they didn’t want to continue an official affiliation with Bethany. Officials from the national headquarters in Michigan agreed to release the Mississippi branch.
The national office could have retained the Mississippi operations and funds and moved forward with a new local board. Instead, it agreed to allow the branch to transfer its work under the umbrella of Lifeline Children’s Services, an Alabama-based Christian adoption agency.
Craig Brown had been executive director at the Mississippi branch of Bethany for less than two years when he and local board members grew alarmed about the decision unfolding in Philadelphia.
He worried that Bethany conceding in Philadelphia would lead to pressure to concede in other places. Brown, who eventually moved on to another job, says the board feared “it was just going to be the first of many—and we just couldn’t be a part of that.”
But Philadelphia wasn’t the first.
In interviews in September, Bethany officials said the Christian agency also facilitates foster care in California and Maryland. They acknowledged those local offices agree to comply with contracts that require agencies to work with same-sex foster parents, if the situation arises and the couples are otherwise qualified.
Bethany has operated the foster care programs in California and Maryland since 2017—about a year before the Philadelphia decision and about two years before the Michigan change.
Why haven’t the potential same-sex placements in California and Maryland drawn more attention?
It’s likely because Bethany wasn’t forced into a public decision to comply in those states: When the agency opened the programs in California and Maryland, it knew both states had requirements for same-sex foster placements.
Why start programs in states with such requirements?
Nathan Bult, vice president of public and government affairs at Bethany, said another agency was closing in California. A local Bethany office had an opportunity to provide services for children in that agency’s care.
Bult says Bethany officials from the national office and local staff in California discussed the possibility they might have to facilitate same-sex placements and decided to move forward.
In Maryland, Bult says, a local Bethany branch had a desire to get involved with transitional foster care for unaccompanied minors who cross the U.S. border. Bethany officials had a similar discussion with the local branch about the possibility of same-sex placements and the agency chose to move forward.
Bult says the agency doesn’t have hard statistics for the number of children branches have placed in same-sex foster care.
BETHANY OFFICIALS DO KNOW the same-sex placements create controversy among Christians.
Vice President Faasse said the agency believes that God’s design for marriage is between a man and a woman. In locations without nondiscrimination requirements, Faasse says they still refer prospective same-sex foster parents to other agencies that can serve them.
She noted Bethany aims to recruit Christian families from local churches, but says they decided to comply with any contractual requirements regarding same-sex placements in order to continue facilitating foster care because “we needed to continue to be light … and we needed to reflect God’s light into the life of kids.”
It’s worth noting that if government officials shut down Christian agencies over their refusal to comply with un-Biblical demands, Christians can still pursue foster care through other agencies. No law bans Christians from fostering children.
Still, families like the Bucks in Michigan say that it’s ideal for Christian agencies to be able to continue their work: The couple says St. Vincent social workers offered them excellent guidance and help that comes from years of experience.
It’s also worth noting that the controversy over Christian agencies and same-sex placements isn’t a debate over the legality of same-sex foster care or adoption. Both are legal, and many agencies serve such couples around the country.
But Christians making a moral argument against requiring faith-based groups to approve same-sex placements could also raise pragmatic questions about whether same-sex placements are in the best interest of a child from a traumatic and confusing background. (See “The kids are not all right,” March 21, 2015.)
‘Our whole point was that we’re not going to be defined by the culture. We’re going to be defined by what we feel are Biblical principles having to do with family, marriage, and child-rearing.’—Will Thompson, former Bethany board member
THE TENUOUS SITUATIONS in Michigan and other places show religious freedom laws may not always protect religious groups. That leaves other Christian agencies facing decisions about what to do in similar dilemmas.
Some Christian groups work in areas of service that don’t involve government contracts: For example, in some states, Bethany branches partner with the Illinois-based program Safe Families to provide temporary placements for children who haven’t been legally removed from their parents or guardians.
In the future, if Catholics prevail in their lawsuits in Philadelphia or Michigan, will Bethany return to its former practice of referring same-sex couples to other agencies in those locations? Faasse said she couldn’t predict what the agency would do in the future. She also said there’s no single plan for how the agency will handle similar cases that could arise in other cities or states.
Meanwhile, other Christian groups continue to face government pushback and refuse to back down. Miracle Hill, a Christian group in Greenville, S.C., received an exemption from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services to continue its foster care work after the state’s Department of Social Services said the Christian organization couldn’t use religious criteria in its recruitment process. (South Carolina Gov. Henry McMaster requested the exemption.) The ACLU later filed a lawsuit, citing Miracle Hill’s declining to work with a same-sex couple based on the group’s religious beliefs.
Miracle Hill spokeswoman Sandy Furnell said the agency is committed to helping vulnerable children but has been prepared to shut down its foster care program if the government forces its hand: “If it means we can’t do it anymore, we’re going to do what we have to do. … It’s important to us to stand firm.”
Indeed, standing firm likely will grow even harder as government mandates clash with the Biblical mandate in the New Testament book of James, where the apostle describes pure and undefiled religion: “to visit orphans and widows in their affliction—and to keep oneself unstained from the world.”
—This story has been updated to correct the description of when the ACLU filed its lawsuit over Miracle Hill’s recruitment process.
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