Foster children and their families won a small victory last week when a Michigan court ruled that Catholic Charities was not being “discriminatory” by referring same-sex couples to other agencies who can help them foster or adopt children.

According to U.S. District Judge Robert Jonker, the lawsuit involving Lansing-based St. Vincent Catholic Charities was not about whether or not same-sex couples can be great parents, but whether Catholic adoption agencies can continue to profess and promote their belief that marriage “as ordained by God is between one man and one woman.”

As a result of this decision, St. Vincent will be able to continue receiving state funds, at least for the time being, and won’t have to close its doors.

The decision, which is only a preliminary injunction, has been interpreted in some quarters as simply another hateful slap-in-the-face to same-sex couples. But in his opinion, Judge Jonker clearly states, “St. Vincent has never prevented a same-sex couple from fostering or adopting a child. St. Vincent has actually placed children [through an online adoption exchange] with same-sex adoptive parents. And St. Vincent provides parenting support groups at which same-sex parents are welcome and, in fact, attend.” The Michigan state legislature passed a law in 2015 designed to ensure St. Vincent could continue this practice of referring same-sex couples to other agencies for certification.

But during the general election of 2018, Democratic candidate for Michigan Attorney General Dana Nessel (the state’s first openly gay statewide officeholder) called the law “discriminatory.” She described proponents of the law as “hate mongers”‘ who disliked gay people more than they cared about children. Once elected, Nessel targeted St. Vincent and threatened to withdraw state funds unless the agency changed its ways.

In his opinion, Judge Jonker defended St. Vincent’s right to religious liberty. “This case is not about whether same-sex couples can be great parents. They can,” Jonker declared. “No one in the case contests that. What this case is about is whether St. Vincent may continue to do this work and still profess and promote the traditional Catholic belief that marriage as ordained by God is for one man and one woman.”

Joining in the lawsuit on behalf of St. Vincent were Chad and Melissa Buck (who adopted four children with special needs through the agency) and Shamber Flore, a former foster child who at age 5 was removed from her birth home after years of abuse and exposure to drugs, gangs and prostitution.

Melissa Buck testified to the agency’s loving care for her family. “St. Vincent has been with us every step of the journey: answering every phone call, coming with us to doctors’ appointments, even bringing us food, as we strive to give our five beautiful children the best future they can have,” she said. “St. Vincent brought our family together, and I’m happy to know they can keep doing their great work helping children find homes.”

Shamber’s adoptive family, the Flores, have adopted 16 children over the past 14 years and testified after previous “very negative experiences with a state adoptive agency,” they wouldn’t have been able to adopt all these children if they hadn’t found in St. Vincent “a trusted partner and ally.”        

The foster-care battle in Michigan is just the latest skirmish in an ongoing legal war that has already given Catholic adoption agencies in Massachusetts, Illinois, California and other states an ultimatum: either place children with same-sex couples, or close your doors.

Already in deep crisis before this attack on religious liberty, the foster care system in America is reeling. Between 2012 and 2017, the number of children in foster care in the U.S. rose from 396,966 to 442,995 while the number of foster-care families plunged.

After Illinois passed a law in 2011 to end its partnership with faith-based adoption agencies, the state lost 1,547 foster homes in five years, the most significant drop of any state reporting statistics. During the same period (2012-2017), Massachusetts (where Catholic Charities of Boston was forced to shut down its adoption services) lost 2,000 foster families. Other states with laws denying state funds to adoption agencies unless they’re willing to place children with same-sex couples include California, Maryland, New Jersey, Nevada, New York, Oregon, Rhode Island and Wisconsin.

What’s more, the elimination of devout Christians from the ever dwindling pool of willing foster families is only making the situation worse. The Bucks, for example, see “fostering and adopting not just as a choice [they] made, but as a ministry and as a calling” based on their Christian beliefs. According to statistics compiled by the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty, families recruited through church or religious organizations foster 2.6 times longer than other foster parents do. Christians are also approximately three times more likely than non-Christians to seriously consider becoming foster parents and twice as likely to adopt.

Sadly, each year approximately 20,000 teenagers “age out” of the foster-care system without being adopted and wind up carrying serious mental, social and emotional problems with them into adulthood. One in five of these kids will be homeless at age 18. One in two will be unemployed by age 24. Half won’t graduate from high school, and 97% will never graduate from college. Again, defunding faith-based agencies and eliminating the Christian foster parents they attract only increases this tragic waste of human potential. In 2007, one year after Boston stopped partnering with faith-based adoption services, the percentage of kids who “aged out” of the Massachusetts foster-care system rose by over 50 percent and has never returned to pre-2006 levels.

In an attempt to address this foster-care crisis so adoption agencies like Catholic Charities can continue to help these poor children, legislation called the Child Welfare Provider Inclusion Act was first introduced in both the U.S. Senate and the House in 2017. The bill (H.R. 897) was introduced again this year by Republican Representative Mike Kelly of Pennsylvania, but it has been lying paralyzed in subcommittee since January.

Sue Ellen Browder writes from Lander, Wyoming.