Amid NY officials’ legal threats, Christian adoption agency gets chance for appeal

New York City, N.Y., Nov 12, 2019 / 10:01 pm (CNA).- New Hope Family Services, a Christian non-profit, is defending its long-standing child placement program from New York state officials who say it must shut down if it does not place children with same-sex and unmarried couples.

It is appealing a U.S. district court’s dismissal of its lawsuit, and the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit has temporarily halted action against the agency until its appeal can be heard.

“Every child deserves a permanent home with loving parents,” Roger Brooks, senior counsel with the Alliance Defending Freedom legal group, said Nov. 5. “New Hope’s faith-based services do nothing to interfere with other adoption providers, but banishing it means fewer kids will find permanent homes, fewer adoptive parents will ever welcome their new child, and fewer birth parents will enjoy the exceptional support that New Hope has offered for decades.”

“We hope the court will permanently uphold New Hope’s ability to serve children and families according to the very beliefs that motivate its valuable services,” said Brooks, whose legal group is representing the agency.

New Hope Family Services said it has placed over 1,000 children in New York. It operates a pregnancy resource center and a foster placement agency. In accord with its beliefs, the agency only places children with married men and women.

Its lawsuit charged that New York state officials ordered the agency to change its child placement policy or submit a close-out plan.

State officials are “actively demanding that such ministries, including New Hope, violate their religious convictions and say things that they believe to be false — or shut their doors,” its lawsuit said. It objects that New York state has never changed adoption laws to require the placement of children with couples other than an adult husband and wife, Courthouse News Service reported in May.

According to the lawsuit, officials with the New York Office of Children and Family Services who made a site visit to the agency initially praised it for showing “a number of strengths in providing adoption services within the community.”

State officials later reviewed New Hope’s policy and procedures manual and allegedly singled out its policy on child placements. The officials described the policy as “discriminatory and impermissible.”

The attorneys said the agency refers couples it cannot serve to other providers and has received no formal complaints.

In May, U.S. District Judge Mae D’Agostino dismissed the agency’s lawsuit. She said Christian agencies are free to believe that unmarried or same-sex couples are unfit parents but cannot prohibit such couples from adopting without running afoul of laws barring discrimination, Courthouse News Service reported.

“While religious belief is always protected, religiously motivated conduct enjoys no special protections or exemptions from neutral, generally applied legal requirements,” she said.

While the agency argued that it faced discrimination based on its religious beliefs, the judge said the law was not discriminatory because it applied to any adoption service and did not single out the agency or Christian agencies.

“The fact that New Hope’s conduct springs from sincerely held and strongly felt religious beliefs does not imply that OCFS’s decision to regulate that conduct springs from antipathy to those beliefs,” she said.

She said the agency is not being forced to state that it approves of non-married or same-sex couples. The state agency “is not prohibiting New Hope’s ongoing ministry in any way or compelling it to change the message it wishes to convey.”

In the judge’s view, the New York adoption statute was not drafted to interfere with any agency’s religious expression.

However, New York state rules have already forced the adoption and foster services of Catholic Charities of Buffalo to close because the rules do not allow the agency to maintain its practice of only placing children in homes with a married mother and father. The agency had been providing such services almost since it began more than 90 years ago.

“Because Catholic Charities cannot simultaneously comply with state regulations and conform to the teaching of the Catholic Church on the nature of marriage, Catholic Charities will discontinue foster care and adoption services,” the agency said in August 2018.

Long-standing Catholic and other Christian child placement agencies have been forced to close due to new laws or policies that considered their practices discriminatory on the basis of sexual orientation. March 2006 marked the end of adoption services for Catholic Charities of Boston and the end of adoption services of Catholic Charities affiliates in Illinois came in November 2011.

In 2018, the city of Philadelphia stopped placing adoptive children with Catholic Social Services, only days after calling for 300 new families to adopt foster children. The U.S. Supreme Court will decide whether to review the case in mid-November.

On Nov. 1 the Trump Administration announced a change to federal rules to preserve federal funding of faith-based adoption agencies, regardless of their views on same-sex marriage.

The Department of Health and Human Services said it would revise a 2016 rule that required federally-funded child welfare agencies to place children with same-sex couples.

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