SALT LAKE CITY — On Thursday in a Michigan courtroom, a judge heard arguments over whether to dismiss a lawsuit that could have ramifications for religious organizations around the country, as well as for LGBT couples looking to foster and adopt children.
The case, Dumont v. Lyon, centers around the question of whether faith-based adoption agencies that receive government money can turn away same-sex couples.
As one of the first cases of its kind, experts say it’s likely to set a legal precedent with implications in courts and state legislatures across the country. The Deseret News covered the case in-depth earlier this week.
The ACLU sued the state of Michigan in September of last year, arguing that by contracting with agencies which refuse to serve same-sex couples, the state is violating the equal protection clause of the U.S. Constitution.
“If the state cannot turn away same-sex couples or use religious criteria when making decisions related to child welfare, then neither should agencies which receive government funding,” says Jay Kaplan, staff attorney for the LGBT Project of the ACLU of Michigan.
The case began when Kristy and Dana Dumont, a same-sex married couple living in Michigan, contacted St. Vincent Catholic Charities to inquire about foster care and adoption services. They said the agency told them they didn't work with same-sex couples. The same news came from Bethany Christian Services, another faith-based adoption agency.
“It felt like the wind got knocked out of me,” Kristy, 40, remembers. “I was speechless.”
After being turned away from the two agencies, the Dumonts contacted the ACLU, which was considering filing a lawsuit challenging the state’s practice of contracting with faith-based adoption agencies that don't work with same-sex couples.
They became plaintiffs, along with Erin and Rebecca Busk-Sutton of Detroit, a married same-sex couple, and Jennifer LuDolf of Detroit, a former foster child.
St. Vincent Catholic Charities asked to intervene in the case and is represented by the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty, a non-profit law firm.
Shamber Flore, a former foster child who was adopted through St. Vincent, and Melissa Buck, who adopted five foster children with special needs through the agency, also asked to intervene alongside St. Vincent and are represented by Becket. They submitted statements to the court that were included in Thursday's hearing.
St. Vincent argues that serving same-sex couples would compromise its religious convictions. Becket claims there are legal exemptions which allow for state money to be used while respecting religious belief.
A spokesman for the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services declined to comment on the hearing, citing the ongoing litigation. But according to the court brief, “if faith-based agencies are not allowed to operate according to their religious principles, they will shut down, which can have the effect of reducing the number of available families. Such a result will do nothing to help a single child find a home.”
Becket and the state of Michigan asked the court to dismiss the lawsuit, and Thursday’s hearing in the Eastern District Court of Michigan focused on that motion specifically, arguing that "there is no basis for allowing this lawsuit to proceed." The ACLU opposed the motion.
Oral arguments lasted over two hours, but the judge did not issue an immediate decision.
"Today, we are hopeful that after the court listened to these arguments, that he will understand what is at stake, that he will understand that closing down St. Vincent does nothing to allow same-sex families to adopt, but it does take away critical service and more families and homes that children desperately rely on in the state of Michigan," said Stephanie Barclay, legal counsel for Becket, live on Twitter after the hearing.
Barclay told the Deseret News she was "cautiously optimistic" about District Judge Paul D. Borman granting the dismissal. "This is a judge that asks hard, probing questions of all the parties, and I think he’s going to give the case careful consideration," she added.
Flore and Buck also shared their reactions after the hearing.
"We are grateful that the judge allowed our voice to be heard, and after oral argument, we are hopeful that the future of all orphan children will remain bright," said Buck.
Leslie Cooper, Deputy Director of the ACLU LGBT & HIV Project and an attorney on the case, said the judge was "very engaged with the arguments about why this case needs to move forward."17 comments on this story
“Kristy and Dana Dumont and Erin and Rebecca Busk-Sutton are committed to opening their home to provide love and support that a child needs," said Cooper. "We are hopeful that the court will rule quickly so that children in Michigan who need a loving home have access to as many qualified parents as possible.”
"We felt that the arguments went well," Kaplan added. "We remain cautiously optimistic."
Barclay and Kaplan said Borman did not give a specific time frame for his ruling.