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Catholic adoption agency wins reprieve in Michigan

A settlement allows St. Vincent Catholic Charities to place children according to its religious beliefs


Children placed through St. Vincent Becket

Catholic adoption agency wins reprieve in Michigan

A Michigan foster and adoption agency has won a long battle to place children in families according to its Biblical beliefs. Michigan’s Department of Health and Human Services on Wednesday settled its lawsuit with Lansing-based St. Vincent Catholic Charities over the organization’s policy to place a child only with a married man and woman.

Under the court-approved settlement, the state agreed it wouldn’t end St. Vincent’s license over its Biblical placement policies. The state will also pay the agency $550,000 in attorneys’ fees.

That’s good news for Chad and Melissa Buck, who with St. Vincent sued the state in 2019 after a regulatory change targeted religious agencies. The 2018 policy threatened to end St. Vincent’s contract unless it placed children with unmarried and same-sex couples. The settlement preserves a pre-2018 policy that permitted the group to refer prospective parents to other agencies if religious beliefs prevented it from assisting with the certification and licensing recommendation process for families.

“We are relieved and overjoyed to know that St. Vincent can finally get back to placing vulnerable children with families like ours without the threat of closure,” Melissa Buck told The Detroit News. The Bucks are in the process of adopting their sixth special needs child through St. Vincent.

In September 2019, a U.S. District Court judge blocked the new rule from taking effect while litigation proceeded. After a request by St. Vincent, the District Court put the case on hold pending a ruling from the Supreme Court in a similar case out of Philadelphia.

In June 2021, a unanimous Supreme Court ruled in that case in favor of Catholic Social Services of Philadelphia. The justices determined the city government could not force the foster care agency to place children with same-sex couples or unmarried individuals. Because Philadelphia made other individual exemptions to its nondiscrimination regulation, its law was not “generally applicable” and thus had to meet a higher standard of scrutiny. Philadelphia officials settled the case with the agency in November, agreeing to pay more than $2 million in attorneys’ fees.

In last week’s settlement, Michigan agreed that St. Vincent would likely prevail under the Fulton ruling.

For Becket Law’s Lori Windham, who represented St. Vincent, the settlement demonstrates how the Supreme Court ruling protects religious child welfare agencies. She said states likely will not be able to avoid Fulton by fashioning foster care and adoption regulations without individual exemptions because social service agencies must have flexibility. “It’s really normal to think about the individual and the people involved,” Windham said. “It’s not like setting a speed limit.”

While the settlement is limited to St. Vincent, Windham expects the same rule will apply to all religious child-placing agencies in Michigan. A separate lawsuit involving Grand Rapids–based Catholic Charities West Michigan is currently on hold while the parties pursue a settlement.


Steve West

Steve is a reporter for WORLD. A graduate of World Journalism Institute, he worked for 34 years as a federal prosecutor in Raleigh, N.C., where he resides with his wife.

@slntplanet

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