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Judge slams Dana Nessel in gay adoption case for ‘targeted attack’ on religion

Dana Nessel

LANSING — A federal judge on Thursday temporarily suspended Michigan’s new gay-friendly adoption policy and accused Attorney General Dana Nessel of “a targeted attack on a sincerely held religious belief.”

U.S. District Court Judge Robert Jonker also denied most elements of the state’s motion to dismiss the highly-charged case, allowing the litigation to proceed.

St. Vincent Catholic Charities and individual plaintiffs, who Jonker removed from the case, sued the state in April after Nessel settled a separate suit challenging a 2015 law that allows private adoption agencies who receive state funding to decline to work with gay parents so long as they refer them to another agency. 

The March 2019 settlement specified that non-discrimination clauses in state contracts with adoption or foster agencies preclude them from turning away otherwise qualified gay, lesbian or transgender parents or refusing to perform home studies. 

“What St. Vincent has not done and will not do is give up its traditional Catholic belief that marriage as instituted by God is for one man and one woman,” wrote Jonker, who was appointed to the West Michigan district court by Republican former President George W. Bush.

Nessel put the charity “in the position of either giving up its belief or giving up its contract with the State,” he wrote at the end of his 32-page opinion. “That kind of targeted attack on a sincerely held religious belief is what calls for strict scrutiny in this case and supports entry of a preliminary injunction preserving the status quo while the case is fully litigated.”

In an accompanying order, Jonker prohibited the state from terminating or suspending contracts with St. Vincent Catholic Charities because of its “protected religious exercise” while the case continues.

Late Thursday, Nessel defended her actions in the case on Twitter, writing "Now and forever I will fight to support the constitutional precepts of separation of church and state and equal protection under the law for all Michigan residents and all Americans."

The case is the latest test of the ongoing battle between gay rights and religious freedoms following a 2015 U.S. Supreme Court ruling that legalized same-sex marriages across the nation. As a private attorney, Nessel successfully fought to overturn Michigan’s ban. 

The Michigan Catholic Conference praised Jonker’s decision, calling it an “excellent opinion.” And Becket Law, a religious liberty legal group representing St. Vincent in the case, said the ruling “ensures that faith-based agencies can continue working with the state to find more homes for foster children.”

But Jay Kaplan, staff attorney for the ACLU of Michigan’s LGBT project, called the ruling “extremely disappointing” and said it is “putting the needs of faith-based agencies ahead of the needs of children."

Agencies that contract with Michigan for adoption or foster care services are “state actors,” Kaplan said, arguing that exempting them from non-discrimination rules “really crosses the line between separation of church and state.”

Editor's note: This story was updated Friday morning to include reactions to the ruling.

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