SYRACUSE, N.Y. (CN) – Drawing a bright line between religious conviction and religiously informed action, a federal judge dismissed a lawsuit Thursday from a Christian adoption agency that is opposed to placing children with unmarried and gay couples.
The ruling, issued this morning by U.S. District Judge Mae D’Agostino in Syracuse, says Christian adoption ministries are fully within their rights to regard gay and unmarried couples as unfit adoptive parents.
It is in actively prohibiting such from adopting, however, that the ministries fall into prohibited conduct.
“While religious belief is always protected, religiously motivated conduct enjoys no special protections or exemptions from neutral, generally applied legal requirements,” D’Agostino wrote.
The organization New Hope Family Services initiated the case here late last year after it was warned by the New York Office of Children and Family Services (OCFS) that it would have to close down if it would not be willing to place children with unmarried and same-sex couples.
Though New Hope refuses to place children with unmarried or homosexual couples, it claims it has and will continue to work with “truly single” unmarried individuals.
Formed in Syracuse in 1958 to help care for and place children whose birth parents could or would not care for them, the Christian ministry attacked the OCFS policy as one improperly weilded by “unelected bureaucrats.”
“New York state has never changed its adoption laws to make it mandatory for adoption providers to place children with couples other than an ‘adult husband and his adult wife,’” New Hope’s complaint said.
“OCFS is now actively demanding that such ministries, including New Hope, violate their religious convictions and say things that they believe to be false — or shut their doors.”
The suit garnered support from conservative Christian groups, including the Alliance Defending Freedom, while liberal groups dubbing New Hope a hate group, and conservatives likened New York’s mandate to “separate but equal” racial discrimination.
D’Agostino found Thursday, however, that New Hope had not suffered any discrimination since the new statute applied to any adoption service and did not single out New Hope or Christian agencies.
“The fact that New Hope’s conduct springs from sincerely held and strongly felt religious beliefs does not imply that OCFS’s decision to regulate that conduct springs from antipathy to those beliefs,” her 42-page opinion states.
D’Agostino contrasted New York’s law against that of a city in Florida that prohibited animal slaughter except in certain circumstances. In the Florida case, she noted, the history of the ordinance showed city officials wanted to suppress Santeria, a religious that employs animal sacrifice as part of its rites, with council members asking, “what can we do to prevent the church from opening?”
That ordinance had as its goal targeted religious suppression, while in New York the adoption statute was not drafted to interfere with any adoption agency’s religious expression, D’Agostino wrote.
The judge also noted that New Hope, as an authorized agency, performs work that is governmental in nature and subject to the agency’s anti-discrimination policies.
“OCFS is not prohibiting New Hope’s ongoing ministry in any way or compelling it to change the message it wishes to convey,” D’Agostino wrote. “New Hope is not being forced to state that it approves of non-married or same-sex couples.”
Indeed, “there is no doubt that New Hope’s general disapproval of cohabitating unmarried couples and same-sex couples will continue to be made clear,” D’Agostino added.
The judge also pointed out that OCFS officials tried to work with New Hope to resolve the problem, with the agency praising New Hope’s adoption program overall. New Hope claims to have placed more than 1,000 children in homes across the state, and it also operates a pregnancy resource center and foster placement agency.
The Alliance Defending Freedom said New Hope may appeal.
“There’s no reason for the state to single out and exclude those whose faith teaches them that the best home for a child includes a married father and mother,” ADF senior counsel Roger Brooks said in a statement. “Children in Syracuse, throughout New York, and across the country will suffer if this kind of discrimination and hostility toward faith-based adoption providers becomes status quo.”
New Hope says it has not been able to accept new clients, and that at least three families awaiting placements have requested refunds since the ministry was told to service unmarried and same-sex couples.
Other states have used other methods to prevent adoption agencies from discriminating against homosexuals. In March, Michigan became the first state to prevent adoption agencies that refuse to service homosexual couples from receiving state tax dollars.