(CN) – A Catholic foster-care agency sued the Michigan attorney general Monday, fighting the threat of penalties if it refuses to serve same-sex couples.
St. Vincent Catholic Charities filed the lawsuit in the Western Michigan federal court, along with co-plaintiffs Melissa and Chad Buck and Shamber Fiore.
In addition to Michigan Attorney General Dana Nessel, they also sued the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services and Secretary Alex Azar; Michigan Health and Human Services director Robert Gordon; and Michigan Children’s Services Agency executive director Herman McCall.
St. Vincent accuses the state of forcing it and other faith-based agencies “to choose between following their faith and closing down a vital ministry.”
Attorney William Bloomfield of the Catholic Diocese of Lansing filed the lawsuit on the plaintiffs’ behalf, along with The Becket Fund for Religious Liberty.
The Bucks have fostered five special-needs children through St. Vincent, and they claim they wouldn’t be able to adopt one of the children’s siblings without the agency.
Fiore serves as a mentor with St. Vincent, which helped her “find a home and a loving family after escaping a past filled with trauma and abuse,” according to the lawsuit.
The plaintiffs claim the state “has threatened to take action against St. Vincent solely because the agency abides by its Catholic beliefs regarding marriage.”
They ask the court for an injunction, claiming violations of their First and 14th Amendment rights.
“No same-sex couple has been prevented from fostering or adopting a child by St. Vincent,” the plaintiffs say, adding the agency refers same-sex couples to foster programs that can help them.
Through the state’s Michigan Adoptive Resources Exchange, the lawsuit states, a same-sex couple could adopt a child who is placed with one of St. Vincent’s foster families.
St. Vincent objected to the state’s requirement that it recommend LGBTQ prospective parents for foster-care licenses.
“Were St. Vincent to fail to comply with this regulation, MDHHS will cut St. Vincent’s funding and refuse to continue contracting with the agency,” the plaintiffs claim.
They also note that other state-licensed agencies are allowed to specialize in placing students with families that are black, Native American or have experience with developmentally disabled children.
In 2017, the American Civil Liberties Union sued Michigan Health and Human Services on behalf of two couples who claimed St. Vincent and another agency had referred them elsewhere based on their sexual orientation.
The plaintiffs intervened in that lawsuit in March 2018, but they did not join in its settlement last month. They claimed that Attorney General Nessel “directed MDHHS to change its internal policy regarding permitting private child placing agencies to refer couples to other agencies.”
The lawsuit quotes Nessel as stating that “the United States Department of Health and Human Services requires that states’ Title IV-E-funded programs prohibit discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation or gender identity.”
Therefore, faith-based agencies are no longer allowed to refer same-sex couples to other agencies or to refuse to process their adoption applications, according to the lawsuit.
St. Vincent noted its adoption contract is up for renewal in October, and it “reasonably fears that the state will refuse to renew the contract on the basis of St. Vincent’s religious beliefs and practices.”
“If St. Vincent is unable to receive referrals from or contract with the state,” the plaintiffs say, “it will be forced to close its foster care and adoption programs, ending a decades-old religious ministry and reducing the number of agencies available to serve families and children in need.”
Melissa Buck said, “We are hopeful that the courts will step in, do the right thing and allow faith-based agencies to continue to help vulnerable families like mine.”