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

Dana Nessel

Attorney General Dana Nessel helped strengthen the state’s non-discrimiation policy for gay parents in separate adoption lawsuit.  (Bridge file photo)

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.

Like what you’re reading in Bridge? Please consider a donation to support our work!

We are a nonprofit Michigan news site focused on issues that impact all citizens. In an era of click bait and biased news, we focus on taking the time to learn both sides of a story before we post it. Bridge stories are always free, but our work costs money. If our journalism helps you understand and love Michigan more, please consider supporting our work. It takes just a moment to donate here.

Pay with VISA Pay with MasterCard Pay with American Express Donate now

Comment Form

Add new comment

Plain text

  • No HTML tags allowed.
  • Web page addresses and e-mail addresses turn into links automatically.
  • Lines and paragraphs break automatically.
This question is for testing whether or not you are a human visitor and to prevent automated spam submissions.


Dena Arner
Thu, 09/26/2019 - 7:10pm

do their "sincerely held beliefs" allow them to place children in couples where one spouse has been divorced ? where there has been infidelity ? where the marriage was in a courthouse instead of a church ? where they might serve shellfish ? If not then I question how "sincerely held" those beliefs are and why they are only based on biased reading of certain biblical verses instead of others.

tony scordo
Fri, 09/27/2019 - 2:37pm

this left wing whacko will ger hers. And the State should not be paying for defending her individually

David Frye
Fri, 09/27/2019 - 6:47pm

When I submit a comment, I get a message saying that it will be posted after the content is approved. So my question is: how was the above comment, which combines an ad hominem insult ("whacko") with what I read as a threat ("will get hers") approved? I for one find it offensive and contrary to whatever "Bridge" building we are trying to do here.

Tom b
Sun, 09/29/2019 - 4:43am

Quit be such a sissy

Sun, 09/29/2019 - 2:41pm

I second that. Moderation should have deleted that worthless, insulting post.

Church Has Dirt...
Thu, 09/26/2019 - 7:14pm

Church won't let gays adopt children that need parents, but allows clergy to abuse children. Ironic.

Ann Farnell
Thu, 09/26/2019 - 7:58pm

The best way to keep a separation between church and state is for the state to not contract with churches. I worked on a church affiliated contract and saw the church abuse or take advantage of the state because there is no state oversight of how the monies are actually used. Sad to say there is no honor where money is concerned by some church personnel.

Tina S.
Wed, 10/02/2019 - 8:59am

Separation of Church & State is an idea/ guideline, not a rule or law. There is tons of honor in the money churches handle. "Abuse" "Take Advantage of" are your feelings. & you're allowed to have them.

Church and State
Fri, 09/27/2019 - 8:18am

So the Roman Catholic Church through St. Vincent Catholic Charities gets State taxpayer funding and uses it to place children in homes where those children have to go to their church every Sunday or be indoctrinated in some way? That arrangement sounds like a violation of the Establishment Clause of the US Constitution.

David Frye
Fri, 09/27/2019 - 9:01am

I grew up in the South in the 1960s. Many (perhaps most) churches in that time and place were adamantly opposed to "interracial" marriage on religious grounds. They argued, from the pulpit, that marriage between a black person and a white person went against the will of God.

I'm sure there are still many Americans who hold this belief. How can we allow religious institutions to use our tax dollars to discriminate against gay Americans without also allowing religiously based racial discrimination? Serious question. The arguments for one are precisely the same as the arguments for the other.

Fri, 09/27/2019 - 9:07am

Adoption service is a state service that should not be farmed out, contracted to any other agency, profit or non-profit.

Conflicts like this are inevitable, particularly when a contract is with a religious non-profit. Like state funding of religious schools, it should never be done.

Mike S.
Fri, 09/27/2019 - 10:01am

EB - I would disagree. Unfortunately, the church has subrogated its responsibility to "care for the widow, the poor, the orphan" to the government. This has been, and still should be, the responsibility of the church. I would agree, however, that much of the American church today is ill-equipped to perform this responsibility (a topic for another day). I'm afraid we've gone down the welfare, ward-of-the-state road too far for the church to step up and take back their responsibility. For background, I have adopted through a faith-based agency that has now decided to comply with these new "non-discriminatory" mandates. The state has failed to take care of so many children that are "under their care", that they were court mandated to turn over their case-files to many private agencies in order to place these kids. The government couldn't even get the job done without the help of private faith-based adoption agencies.

Church Bigotry
Fri, 09/27/2019 - 1:43pm

As a person or church (group of people), you can voluntarily give time or financial support to supplement care for widows, the poor, and orphans where the government might fall short. You should not impose your prejudicial religious views on others wishing to adopt or be adopted. This case will be appealed to the Supreme Court and the lower court decision will be overturned, even with the current Supreme Court packed with conservative Catholic Justices. Just saying, this situation is exactly like the poster mentioned about the southern laws against interracial marriage based on religious beliefs, convictions.

Sad Christian
Fri, 09/27/2019 - 10:12am

So, St. Vincent’s says it’s better for kids to have no parents at all than to have gay parents? Here’s the thing: Jesus said little to nothing about homosexuality but He said rather a lot about loving one another and caring for the poor. This is bastardization of Christian teachings in order to support bigotry.

Paul Jordan
Fri, 09/27/2019 - 10:30am

We shouldn't be surprised at Judge Jonker's ruling. As much as we might like to ignore it, the bedrock foundation of American law is the protection of the rights of the propertied and powerful. When I was a kid running around the north side of Flint, one of we kids' common watchwords was, "possession is 9/10s of the law". While I have no idea whose parent came up with that one, the sad fact is that this has always been true.
Religiously-affiliated foster care agencies have more property and power than kids needing foster homes, and the established legal system has been designed to protect their prerogatives. It is THEIR right to religious expression that are important--not those of anonymous foster children in need of a safe family.
We need to create the nation of our ideals.

Mango Hendrickson
Fri, 09/27/2019 - 2:48pm

For religious liberty, there must be separation of church and state. I personally dislike the idea of superstitious people raising children, but I respect their right to do so.

Fri, 09/27/2019 - 2:49pm

I’m sick of the argument that religious organizations are being forced to “give up sincerely held beliefs” by not discriminating. First, “organizations” don’t have beliefs, people have beliefs. Second, they’re only being asked to give up their insistence that everyone else must act in accordance with their beliefs. Where in the constitution - or any law - is that a right? Follow the legal contract or don’t take the money.

Fri, 09/27/2019 - 3:01pm

I just want to say that reading the comments on here gives me hope. Thoughtful and intelligent insights and perspectives without any vitriol or even any shade. What a welcoming and positive place.
As for Judge Jonker's decision, I find it very hollow and wanting. It ignores the realities as pointed out by others as it lays out the arguments for church's to keep their seat at the table with impunity despite their proclivities to be the ones that do the indoctrinating.

Gary Lea
Fri, 09/27/2019 - 9:06pm

So, Jonkers? In 2015, the U.S. Supreme Court made same-sex marriages legal in all states; a quote from that decision: “No union is more profound than marriage, for it embodies the highest ideals of love, fidelity, devotion, sacrifice, and family. In forming a marital union, two people become something greater than once they were. As some of the petitioners in these cases demonstrate, marriage embodies a love that may endure even past death. It would misunderstand these men and women to say they disrespect the idea of marriage. Their plea is that they do respect it, respect it so deeply that they seek to find its fulfillment for themselves. Their hope is not to be condemned to live in loneliness, excluded from one of civilization's oldest institutions. They ask for equal dignity in the eyes of the law. The Constitution grants them that right.” When couples pass requirements for marriage, state counties collect marriage license fees. The adoption agency's website proclaims that, "Since 1948 St. Vincent Catholic Charities has provided support to people of all beliefs and ages." Their discrimination has made this statement false. I can only speculate how this adoption agency may treat a married, male/female couple wanting to adopt; married people who are both members of the Satanic Temple. Earlier this year the Satanic Temple was recognized by the U.S. Internal Revenue Service as a "church or a convention or association of churches." The group says the designation will help in religious discrimination legal cases and allow it to pursue faith-based government grants.

Mon, 09/30/2019 - 9:38am

I'll bet this judge is more Catholic than the Pope. Unless he's more Baptist than Jerry Falwell. Or more Christian Deformed Church than the average Ottawa County resident. We really need to stamp religious fanatacism out of public life. Your religion can say marriage is whatever you want it to, but these adoption agencies are taking state money, and marriage as a state institution is whatever the state says it is. And the Supreme Court has ruled that the equal protection guarantees in the Constitution means it is for every human being, no matter what gender they wish to marry.

Mon, 09/30/2019 - 2:07pm

Easy solution, allow parent (or guardian) of the child being put up for adoption, to pick the agency they wish to use (along with the rules that agency chooses to follow). The state should then butt out. After all aren't we all Pro-Choice?