In what’s being called a major victory for LGBTQ people, Bethany Christian Services says it will comply with a legal settlement prohibiting adoption agencies with state contracts in Michigan from turning away same-sex couples.
Bethany, an international adoption and foster-care agency based in Grand Rapids, has branches in 16 cities in the state, as well as branches in 36 other states and the District of Columbia. Bethany has branches throughout Pennsylvania, including in Philadelphia.
The decision by Bethany follows a month of wrangling within the Michigan-based agency after the State Attorney General Dana Nessel ruled in Dumont v. Gordonthat Bethany had to allow same-sex couples to adopt children accepted through referrals from the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services.
“We are disappointed with how this settlement agreement has been implemented by the state government,” the organization said in an April 22 statement. “Nonetheless, Bethany will continue operations in Michigan, in compliance with our legal contract requirements.”
The statement also said, “The mission and beliefs of Bethany Christian Services have not changed.”
Philadelphia became the first city to force Bethany to allow same-sex couples to adopt. Judge Petrese B. Tucker of the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania ruled in July 2018 that the city could require the foster and adoption agencies with which it contracts to adhere to the city’s non-discrimination policies. The decision marked the first time a federal court had ruled that such agencies may not turn away same-sex couples whom don’t meet the agencies’ religious criteria.
But the ruling only covered Philadelphia because of the city’s non-discrimination policy. The state of Pennsylvania has no such policy, which means religious-based agencies can continue to discriminate against LGBT parents — among them Bethany Christian Services in Harrisburg, Lancaster, Wexford, Allentown, York, Lancaster, State College, Meadville and Reading.
The Michigan and Philadelphia cases made similar arguments. Bob Wheaton, a spokesman for the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services, confirmed that Bethany will abide by terms of the settlement.
“The Michigan Department of Health and Human Services is pleased that the department will be able to continue its long-standing partnership with Bethany in providing services to children and families,” Wheaton said in a statement.
Michigan DHHS said that Bethany Christian Services handled about 10 percent of adoption center and foster care children in the state.
Nessel, the attorney general in Michigan, declined to comment on the case, but on her official Twitter account she wrote, “Having more adoption agencies which don’t discriminate =’s more children adopted into loving, nurturing ‘forever’ homes. Thank you to Bethany Christian Services!”
Jay Kaplan, staff attorney for the LGBT Project of the Michigan ACLU said, "We filed a lawsuit challenging the state of Michigan’s practice of permitting state-contracted taxpayer-funded foster and adoption agencies to refuse to work with same-sex couples citing the agencies religious beliefs.”
Kaplan said, “The state of Michigan agreed to hold these contracting agencies to the contract language of non-discrimination because children in foster care need every family that is willing and able to provide them with a loving home.”
In 2015 then-Gov. Rick Snyder, a Republican, signed a religious-exemption law allowing agencies to reject prospective parents on religious grounds. In November 2018, Democrat Gretchen Whitmir, a strong LGBT ally, was elected governor in a hotly contested race. She strengthened LGBT protections in the state and banned all religious exemptions for state-contracted agencies.
Throughout the country, states are passing religious-freedom and religious-exemption laws. Currently legislation is awaiting passage in Tennessee that would allow for discrimination against LGBTQ people seeking to adopt.
At present, 10 states — Alabama, Kansas, Michigan, Mississippi, North Dakota, Oklahoma, South Carolina, South Dakota, Texas and Virginia — have laws allowing religiously affiliated placement agencies to turn away LGBTQ parents, and even refuse to place LGBTQ children. But the majority of the remaining states don’t have non-discrimination laws protecting LGBTQ prospective parents.
In November 2018, a report from the liberal think tank Center for American Progress found that religious-exemption laws were harming children by preventing adoptions and fostering.
"Turning away LGBTQ prospective parents by asserting a religious exemption or taking advantage of a lack of state nondiscrimination law is a violation of this group’s rights," the report states. "It also negatively affects the already strained child welfare system, ultimately harming the children in its care."
More than a third of all social service agencies handling adoptions and foster care are religiously affiliated.
In 2017, there were about 443,000 children in foster care across the U.S., according to data from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS). Each year, some 50,000 children are adopted through the U.S. child welfare system, but about 20,000 others "age out" before being placed with an adoptive family, according to HHS.
LGBTQ kids are also disproportionately represented in the foster care system.
The Michigan decision has been met with an angry response from religious groups like the Family Research Council. Rep. Mike Kelly (R-PA-16) has presented a federal religious exemption bill in the House to circumvent states like Michigan banning religious exemptions.