Religious Freedom or Children’s Rights: Which Matters More?

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By Ian Wendrow
Listen Up, Lansing

LANSING-Organizations across Lansing are responding to a package of bills passed by the Michigan House of Representatives, which allows state funded agencies the right to deny service to potential parents based on “sincerely held religious beliefs.”

Of the multiple faith based adoption agencies in Michigan, Bethany Christian Services (BCS) is the largest among them.

When contacted, BCS refused to speak directly to reporters but did release a press statement addressing the proposed bills:

“The legislation approved by the House preserves in law Michigan’s longstanding public/private partnership with a diverse group of private, secular, and faith-based agencies that work side-by-side to find permanent, loving homes for vulnerable children. It doesn’t restrict anyone from participating in foster care or adoption, but it does preserve for faith-based agencies the freedom to be faithful to our convictions,” it read.

However, not all of Lansing agrees with the statement that the bills do not restrict parental candidates.

Equality Michigan, the only statewide advocacy group for lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer (LGBTQ) peoples and HIV sufferers with offices in Detroit and Lansing, spoke out at an anti-adoption bill rally.

“Equality Michigan joins Michiganders around the state in being concerned by our elected officials’ desire to enshrine discrimination into our laws. Children need homes and loving families, and the actions being taken by our elected leaders does nothing to help this long-standing problem,” said executive director Emily Dievendorf.

Under the proposed bills, HB 4188 and HB 4189, the state of Michigan would be unable to commit any “adverse action” against a faith-based adoption service “on the basis that the child placing agency has declined or will decline to provide any services that conflict with…the child placing agency’s sincerely held religious beliefs.”

The definition for “adverse action” has been left vague by drafters of the bill, but the most plausible example would be an alteration of state funding to adoption agencies.

Many adoption services in Michigan receive direct funding from the state, including Bethany Christian Services, which receives 50 percent of its annual revenue from state funds.

Private adoption agencies in Lansing, such as Adoption Associates, Inc., have remained silent on the matter as they are not directly affected by the legislation in question.

Adoption Associates, Inc. is one of several private adoption agencies in Michigan.

Adoption Associates, Inc. is one of several private adoption agencies in Michigan.

Frank Ravitch, a law professor at Michigan State University whose professional writings focus primarily on religious and constitutional law, holds some serious concerns should these bills pass into law.

“What we have here is a fine line between the free exercise of religion and the rights of the children. Which one takes more precedence?” he said in a phone interview.

This central question is what makes these bills so complicated and contentious.

On the one hand, there is a growing movement among states to pass their own version of the Religious Freedom Restoration Act, a federal law passed under the Clinton administration that broadly protects the free exercise of religion but has come under repeat judicial review since its inauguration into law.

On the other, there is the question of whose rights matter more: that of qualified parents, whether LGBTQ or heterosexual, of foster children, or the first amendment rights of adoption agencies.

“It’s a nuanced establishment clause and equal protect clause problem. With the way the bills are written, faith-based adoption services could discriminate for any number of reasons beyond just opposition to gays. What makes this issue so complex is that there’s a third party involved here, and that’s the children,” Ravitch said.

For Ravitch, the mere possibility of Michigan’s foster children having their rights unaccounted for is deeply troubling.

“I very strongly believe in protecting the free exercise of religion and I still think these bills are a bad idea,” he said.

He’s not alone in holding that opinion.

David Wood, a 54-year-old certified master mechanic living in Lansing, disagrees wholeheartedly with the legislation.

“It’s not right. Showing prejudice to a certain group of people, I thought we would have gotten past that by now,” he said.

A local Michigan politician, who asked to only be referred to by his first name Brian, takes umbrage with the possible blowback these bills may have on Michigan’s children.

“I used to work as an administrations officer for at risk kids and, to put it bluntly, I’ve seen some s–t. So anything that might make life harder for kids or get in their way I have a serious problem with. I don’t buy the political line that says this is in the best interests of the children,” he said.

The bills are currently on their way to the Michigan Senate. They come ahead of the DeBoer v Snyder Supreme Court case which, among issues relating to adoption, will also address the possibility of legalizing same-sex marriage in Michigan and other states.

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