The Michigan Legislature is playing a dangerous game of chicken with the children in its care — and now Gov. Rick Snyder has exacerbated the danger by signing cynical legislation into law.
On Wednesday, Republican majorities in both chambers approved a bill that would allow faith-based adoption agencies — including those who take taxpayer dollars to place children who are in the state’s custody — to discriminate in the practice of their work. They can deny services to families that violate the agency’s religious beliefs, including unmarried couples, same-sex couples and those who hold different religious beliefs.
The legislation is a craven attempt to cloak discrimination in faith, and it leaves the best interests of the 13,000 children in the state’s care — entirely out of the equation.
Even worse, it sends Michigan in the exact wrong direction just weeks before the U.S. Supreme Court could invalidate all legislative or constitutional provisions that permit discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation. Should that happen, this statute, along with bigoted laws in states around the country, would fall like their predecessors — Jim Crow-era laws and regulations — after landmark rulings in the 1960s.
That’s lousy moral company for Michigan to keep. It’s lousy business company for Michigan to keep. And it’s especially shameful for a governor whose own preachings about tolerance and acceptance obviously mean less than appeasing his party’s religious conservatives.
The bills Gov. Rick Snyder signed Thursday spell nothing but trouble for the children in this state who are waiting, desperately, for the chance to join willing families.
For starters, there’s simply no credible evidence that same-sex couples make worse parents. Legions of experts backed by well-vetted research testified as much in a legal challenge to Michigan’s constitutional ban on same-sex marriage. So the bills the governor signed Thursday, like the same-sex marriage ban that preceeded them, fail the rational-basis test that legitimate legislation must be able to withstand.
Republican state Sen. Rick Jones, R-Grand Ledge, told the Free Press that because faith-based agencies handle most of the children Michigan places with foster families or adoptive parents each year — pocketing more than half the $19.9 million that the state spent last year to support adoption and foster care services — lawmakers have little choice.
“If they close their doors,” he said, “I don’t know what we’ll do with all the children. This is a real threat.”
Jones is not absolutely wrong.
The truth is that Michigan’s approach to dealing with the 13,000 children in its care is at real risk of collapsing if the Supreme Court invalidates all state-sponsored discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation. Right now, about 50% of the state’s adoption work is performed by religious agencies who, in the likely coming legal reality, won’t be able to or won’t want to receive taxpayer money because they discriminate.
Faced with the loss of that kind of capacity, lawmakers and the governor should be panicked — and seeking some alternative way to ensure the state’s 13,000 in-custody children continue to see adoption opportunities.
Should Michigan develop a more robust in-house government approach to adoption services, in preparation for the possible loss of services from religious agencies? Are there other, nonreligious private options that ought to be explored? Pursuing any of those routes wouldn’t just be wise — it’s crucial, at this point.
But legislation that inculcates the very discrimination that the high court is likely to squash, and does it in the name of religious freedom, is as wrong-headed as the desperate attempts in the 1960s to carve out religious exceptions to racial bias. It won’t work. It embarrasses us all. And it sacrifices the interests of children to make a small-minded point about the nobility of bigotry.
This is the low point to which the state has sunk today, thanks to elected officials who either lack the moral decency or the moral courage to stand for equality alongside religious freedom.
It may not stand more than a few weeks, depending on what the Supreme Court does.
But the stain on our state’s character? That’s indelible.
And the work of figuring out what to do when Michigan’s reliance on religious agencies to do much of the state’s adoption work turns sour? It still awaits more reasoned, tolerant debate among our elected officials.