The legal wrangling between St. Vincent Catholic Charities (SVCC) and the state’s Attorney General took a new turn Friday when AG Dana Nessel’s office filed an emergency motion in which her attorney says she’s not motivated by animus toward the Catholic faith.
At issue is the attempt of the Attorney General’s Office and the Department of Health and Human Services to force SVCC to place foster and adoptive children in homes with same-sex partners. Declaring they couldn’t comply with the rule because of their adherence to the Catholic faith, SVCC filed a lawsuit claiming the rule would force them to cease operations.
Late last month, U.S. District Judge Robert Jonker sided with SVCC, declaring the rule “a targeted attack on a sincerely held belief,” and cited other public comments by Nessel as evidence of her hostility toward Catholicism. Among the comments cited by Jonker, Nessel disparaged the state’s religious freedom law as “discriminatory animus” and its supporters as “hate-mongers.” In her 2018 campaign, Jonker wrote, “she described the 2015 law as ‘indefensible.’”
According to the AG’s motion for a stay of Jonker’s determination pending appeal: “The statements the Court focuses on express no religious hostility. Of equal importance, at the time the statements were made, Attorney General Nessel had no authority over the Department or its policy.”
The motion continues: “To the extent she expressed disagreement with pending or passed legislation, such disagreement has no relevance here because the Department’s policy has been and remains consistent with the legislation as enacted. Neither the record nor applicable case law supports a finding of religious hostility.”
In a press statement, Nessel asserted: “Children who are wards of this state deserve families who love and respect them; they need and deserve forever families – not hostile court battles and rhetoric that overshadows the very purpose of this case. Judge Jonker’s comments unnecessarily inflamed an issue that at its core is about adhering to contractual obligations with the state; nothing more and nothing less.”
The AG press release defends Nessel’s 2015 comments as remarks made as a private citizen opposed to proposed legislation. “The statements did not express religious hostility; instead, she said that ‘a proponent of this type of bill would have to concede that [s/he] dislikes gay people more than [s/he] cares about the needs of foster care kids’ and that ‘these types of laws are a victory for the hate mongers but again a disaster for the children and the state.’
Christine Niles, an attorney and editor-in-chief at St. Michael’s Media, a Catholic apostolate and news agency, told The Center Square she discerns Nessel’s past display an anti-Catholic bias.
“As an attorney and as a practicing Catholic, I find Judge Jonker's decision correct that Nessel's actions are ‘a targeted attack on a sincerely held religious belief,” she wrote in an email.
“Dana Nessel's remarks accusing proponents of Michigan's law protecting religious liberty as ‘hate-mongers’ who ‘dislike gay people more than they care about children’ show clear animus towards people of faith, and her refusal to defend the law as attorney general shows she's motivated by hostility toward those holding religious beliefs that contradict her own on homosexuality.”