FILE - Michigan Attorney General Dana Nessel

Michigan Attorney General Dana Nessel

A Michigan rule imposed by Attorney General Dana Nessel last spring was overturned Thursday by U.S. District Court Judge Robert Jonker. Nessel’s policy banned state contracts with adoption and foster care agencies that wouldn’t place children with same-sex couples.

Calling the ban “a targeted attack on a sincerely held religious belief,” Jonker rebuked Nessel for 2015 comments he characterized as evidence of her hostility toward religious groups who arrange adoptions and foster care only for traditional heterosexual families.

At that time, 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.’”

Lansing-based St. Vincent Catholic Charities brought the lawsuit last spring against several government officials, including Michigan Department of Health and Human Services Director Robert Gordon, Nessel and U.S. Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar. The lawsuit sought nominal damages and legal costs, and requested the court reverse the rule requiring child-placement services to gay couples.

St. Vincent and one other agency represent 10 percent of all child placement services in the state, prompting conservative pundit Rod Dreher to write: “Got that? Around 90 percent of the state’s adoptions are through agencies that adopt out to same-sex couples. The State of Michigan attempted to destroy the work of these two Christian agencies, out of anti-Christian animus.”

“It wasn’t about giving gay couples the right to adopt; it was about making sure that no adoption agency administered according to Christian principles could operate at all,” Dreher commented.

In a tweet Thursday evening, Nessel stated: “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.”

Rodney Pelletier, a writer and producer at St Michael’s Media, a Ferndale-based Roman Catholic apostolate and news agency, responded to Nessel’s tweet in an email to The Center Square: “Nessel is proving she’s all about using her office to promote her own activism, as a weapon to crush opposition of her personal beliefs.”

Pelletier added: “The false dichotomy between church and state is nowhere in the U.S. Constitution and as a lawyer she is well aware of it. She was elected to promote law and order in the state of Michigan, not abuse her office to push her own personal politics.”

In his opinion, Jonker wrote:  “It was [Nessel’s] assessment of risk that led the State to move from defending St. Vincent’s position to abandoning it in the first month of her term – and this despite the 2015 law, the language of the contracts, and well- established practice.”

Jonker continued: “All of this supports a strong inference that St. Vincent was targeted based on its religious belief, and that it was Defendant Nessel who targeted it.”

Had St. Vincent lost its case, it was reported it would have been forced to shutter its operation as early as Monday, Sept. 30.

Jonker wrote that the case doesn’t determine the qualifications of same-sex couples to raise children, but, rather, “whether St. Vincent may continue to do this work and still profess and promote the traditional Catholic belief that marriage as ordained by God is for one man and one woman.”

John Truscott, a spokesperson for St. Vincent Catholic Charities, told The Center Square: "We’re very pleased with Judge Jonker’s ruling. He has supported our position that we believe we should be able to operate in accordance with the teachings of the church. He has protected our religious freedom, but more importantly, this allows us to continue helping vulnerable children find loving families," he said.  

"To the extent that there are unmarried couples or same sex couples pursuing adoption, we refer them to agencies that will help them through the adoption process," Truscott continued. "It’s a very cooperative process that has worked well over the years."

Regional Editor

Bruce Walker is a regional editor at The Center Square. He previously worked as editor at the Mackinac Center for Public Policy’s MichiganScience magazine and The Heartland Institute’s InfoTech & Telecom News.