If a bill in the Michigan House becomes law, state adoption agencies will be able to refuse to place children in homes on religious grounds, all in the name of those agencies' "religious freedom." The bill, with strong support from the Michigan Catholic Conference, would also prohibit the state from refusing funding to discriminatory agencies. It's part of a package of bills on the issue that just passed committee. In many ways, the bill is part of a wider campaign by social conservatives to "protect" religious individuals and businesses who would like to refuse services to, for instance, lesbian, gay, or transgendered customers — manifested in a series of "religious liberty" bills and lawsuits, including a new one in Congress. But it's also just the latest sign of a growing, problematic evangelical adoption "mission," one that's received increasing attention over the past several months.
If the bill becomes law, adoption agencies could get state funding even if they refuse services to aspiring parents on religious grounds. According to Jay Kaplan, an attorney for the Michigan chapter of the ACLU, the law would have broad implications for the state's adoption process. While the Department of Human Services in the state bears responsibility for the oversight of child placement of kids in state custody — for instance, in foster care — that work is largely contracted out to private adoption agencies, including faith-based agencies who would, for example, be enabled to continue to receive state money while discriminating against people of other faiths.
"When [those agencies] discriminate," Kaplan said to The Atlantic Wire, "they are in essence the state discriminating." The ACLU will consider legal action should the bill become law. Religious groups supporting the bill, like the Michigan Catholic Conference, are defending it on the grounds that faith-based groups need to be able to incorporate religious practice into their services, as they explained to the Free Press:
“Protecting the religious mission of adoption and foster care agencies will not only ensure diversity in child placement, it will also safeguard such agencies from undue discrimination.”
If you're not quite sure what the MCC is talking about when it refers to a "religious mission," you're not alone. Adoption, which most people see as a situation were everyone wins — the biological parents, the adoptive parents, and most of all, the children — is actually a bit more complicated and politically (and religiously) steeped than that. Kathryn Joyce, who wrote the book on the religious adoption mission in America, had an op-ed this week in the New York Times explaining the evangelical adoption boom, a well-intentioned movement of believers who believe they're on a mission from God to care for orphaned children. But that movement, a major part of the American adoption industry, particularly the large faith-based portions of it, is rife with opportunities for fraud. As Joyce's book, and a recent The New Republic piece explains, both religious and non-religious adoption agencies use what critics say are coercive tactics to encourage domestic adoption, especially from poorer communities.
Those tactics have, in turn, encouraged a wave of adoption reform advocates, who have long argued that states need more, not less, oversight of the ethical practices of adoption agencies. Protecting religious agencies against consequences for discriminatory practices, or indeed, anything construed to fall under the broad category of "written religious or moral convictions or policies," seems counterproductive here.
Virginia and North Dakota already have similar laws on the books, and Michigan is pursuing a companion bill that would offer similar discriminatory protections for health care professionals in the state. Meanwhile, a challenge in Michigan to the state's ban on gay marriage also focuses on adoption: gay couples in the state are currently barred from adopting each other's children.