Michigan officials tried to bar funds for Catholic child placement agencies. Instead, they are paying at least $800,000 in legal fees in settling two agencies’ successful First Amendment challenges.

Catholic Charities West Michigan is the second Catholic agency in the state to reach a six-figure settlement with officials who had wrongly barred state funds to foster and adoption agencies that did not place children with same-sex couples.

“Catholic Charities West Michigan meets a critical need as one of the region’s largest social service providers, reuniting children with their birth parents and placing foster kids in loving homes,” Jeremiah Galus, senior counsel with Alliance Defending Freedom, said March 21.

“We are pleased Catholic Charities can continue its vital mission serving vulnerable families in Michigan without being punished by the government simply because it’s operating according to its religious beliefs—the very reason the ministry exists in the first place,”

The Catholic Charities affiliate is under the Catholic Diocese of Grand Rapids. Its lawsuit asked the court to protect it from being “singled out, punished, or disfavored because of its religious beliefs—beliefs that motivate its care for children, birth parents, and other vulnerable members of the community,” Alliance Defending Freedom said.

Catholic Charities West Michigan policy prefers to place children with adoptive or foster families of a married mother and father. This policy came under fire when the state attorney general sided with two same-sex couples and the ACLU which had charged it is not allowed under state anti-discrimination law.

The Michigan Department of Health and Human Services has agreed that action against the charity for this policy would constitute a First Amendment violation. The health department agreed to pay $250,000 for the charity’s attorney’s fees and costs.

The Catholic charities affiliate has been active for more than 70 years. In the last decade it has placed about 4,500 children in homes and serves another 30,000 individuals each year for various needs.

“More adoption and foster care providers mean more children have the chance to be adopted or cared for by a foster family,” said Galus.

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The settlement comes after a ruling from the Supreme Court last year in which the court unanimously found that the city of Philadelphia had violated a Catholic adoption agency’s First Amendment rights by refusing to work with the agency unless it agreed to place children with same-sex couples.

The lawsuit challenged the March 2019 settlement Michigan Attorney General Dana Nessel had reached with the ACLU and same-sex couples who had approached a Catholic agency and another Christian agency. That settlement required the state to enforce non-discrimination provisions in contracts. This settlement barred state funds from adoption agencies that wouldn’t place children with same-sex couples.

Nessel’s settlement addressed a 2017 lawsuit from the same-sex couples and the ACLU. The Michigan Catholic Conference had described that lawsuit as “mean-spirited, divisive and intolerant,” and “yet another egregious attack on religious faith in public life.”

Nessel, a Democrat who is raising two children with a same-sex spouse, reached the 2019 settlement despite a 2015 state law protecting the religious freedom and funding of adoption agencies. At the time of the settlement that adversely affected Catholic agencies, she argued that the adoption agencies’ policies constituted illegal discrimination.

The latest settlement in favor of Catholic Charities West Michigan is not the first.

In a January 2022 settlement, the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services agreed not to take any action against the Lansing-based St. Vincent Catholic Charities and to pay $550,000 in attorney’s fees and costs to Becket. St. Vincent Catholic Charities itself is under the Diocese of Lansing.

The legal group Becket had a lawsuit on behalf of the Lansing-based St. Vincent Catholic Charities as well as people who have benefitted from their work: Shamber Flore, a former foster child placed with a family by St. Vincent, and Melissa and Chad Buck, a married couple who have adopted five children with special needs through St. Vincent.

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A 2017 court filing from St. Vincent Catholic Charities said it recruited more new families than seven of eight adoption agencies in the capital region. It said it would be unable to continue its programs without the contract.

While religious freedom has long been a major principle of American public life, in recent decades it has become a target of some groups and some wealthy donors which advocate for LGBT and abortion rights causes.

Some local governments, including Illinois and the District of Columbia, have adopted laws and policies which bar state funds or operating licenses for agencies which do not place children with same-sex couples. These laws and policies resulted in the closure of many Catholic and other Christian child placement agencies.