Kristy Dumont and her wife, Dana, had been hoping to foster a child, so they approached Catholic Charities in Michigan in 2016. The two women, however, said they were “shut down” due to their sexual orientation.
“We didn’t get any farther than the first phone call,” Kristy Dumont told NBC News.
The Dumonts proceeded to sue the state, and on March 22 the couple reached a settlement with Democratic Attorney General Dana Nessel's office. Under the settlement, faith-based adoption agencies that are funded by the state of Michigan will no longer be able to turn away LGBTQ couples or individuals because of religious objections.
Kristy and Dana Dumont said they are “thrilled” with the outcome of the case and hope to foster a child soon.
But while Michigan is making it harder for agencies to deny lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender prospective parents, a number of other states are moving in the opposite direction.
"Adoption discrimination is snowballing toward a serious crisis for children, families and communities,” Liz Welch, a faith engagement strategist at the American Civil Liberties Union, told NBC News. “Once considered fringe policy in just a couple states, the push behind child welfare religious exemption bills has picked up alarming speed and momentum.”
At least nine states have laws on the books allowing for religious exemptions in the foster and adoption process, and several others are considering similar measures. Welch said such laws have “far-reaching consequences — most significantly for the children.”
In 2017, there were about 443,000 children in foster care across the United States, according to the Department of Health and Human Services. Each year, some 50,000 children are adopted through the child welfare system, but about 20,000 others “age out” before being placed with an adoptive family, the department reports.
The first law allowing religiously affiliated placement agencies to turn away LGBTQ parents passed in North Dakota in 2003. The next was in Virginia in 2012. Since then, laws have been adopted in quick succession in Michigan, Alabama, Kansas, Mississippi, Oklahoma, South Dakota and Texas. This session, bills have been introduced in Tennessee, Arkansas and Colorado — and South Carolina has once again included a religious exemption for faith-based, child placement agencies in its annual appropriations bill.
In Tennessee, HB 836, part of what LGBTQ advocates have called the “slate of hate,” passed the Republican-controlled House on Monday. Its companion bill remains in the Senate Judiciary Committee and may come to the floor for a vote before the end of the session.
“This bill allows the use of religion to discriminate against prospective parents for any number of reasons, from their religion to their sexual orientation, marital status and beyond,” Hedy Weinberg, executive director of the ACLU of Tennessee, said in a statement. “Turning away good families simply because they don’t satisfy one agency’s religious preferences would deny thousands of Tennessee children access to the families they urgently want and need.”
The lead sponsor of HB 836, Republican Tim Rudd, told the Tennessean the bill is intended to protect faith-based agencies from "frivolous lawsuits" by activists. He acknowledged, however, that no Tennessee organizations have been sued, calling the bill "preemptive."
A similar bill in Arkansas, SB 352, is scheduled for a hearing Friday. The bill would allow private child welfare agencies to receive government contracts even if they refuse to provide services due to religious conviction.
In Colorado, HB 1140, or the “Live and Let Live Act,” failed in February. If it had passed, it would have stopped the state government from punishing foster and adoption care providers that decline to provide services to those who don’t share their religious beliefs.
‘I NEVER THOUGHT THIS WOULD AFFECT ME’
For the first time, the issue of religious exemptions in the child welfare process has moved from the states to the federal government. In January, the Department of Health and Human Services issued a waiver permitting South Carolina adoption agencies that receive government money to refuse to comply with nondiscrimination requirements as a stipulation of receiving federal funding.
“The Trump administration has given placement agencies a license to discriminate,” Welch said of the waiver.
The religious exemptions are not just affecting LGBTQ prospective parents. Aimee Maddonna, a mother of three who’s married to a man, was refused service due to her religion — Catholicism.
Maddonna was looking to open her home to foster children and approached Miracle Hill, the largest foster and adoption agency in South Carolina. She said she chose the agency because it offers programs that would allow her children, two of whom have special needs, to volunteer with foster kids who have similar needs.
Maddonna told NBC News that “everything went well” until a representative from Miracle Hill asked her for a reference from her church. When Maddonna supplied the name of her Catholic church, she was informed her family would no longer be considered for the program.
“I was devastated,” she said.”It definitely turned us off from even attempting to reach out to other agencies,” she said.
“As a Catholic, I never thought this would affect me,” she added. “If we don’t protect the rights of everybody, it’s going to trickle down and affect you at some point.”
Americans United for Separation of Church and State filed a lawsuit against the Department of Health and Human Services and the state of South Carolina in February on Maddonna’s behalf.
"By permitting foster-care child-placement agencies, such as Miracle Hill, to put their own religious preferences ahead of the best interests of the children when providing state and federally funded foster-care services,” the suit states, “the U.S. government and the State of South Carolina harm vulnerable children by denying them access to loving families, while also harming those loving families, like the Maddonna family, by subjecting them to discrimination on the basis of their religious identities, in violation of the U.S. Constitution, federal law, and basic decency."
Sandy Furnell, a spokesperson for Miracle Hill, told NBC News that it is a “mischaracterization” to say Maddonna was turned away or prevented from fostering.
“There are multiple agencies that work with prospective foster families,” she said. “We are not preventing anyone from fostering.”
“What we do is work with coreligionists who share our mission,” she explained, noting Miracle Hill is a Protestant Christian organization. “Just like if a Catholic wanted to recruit within Catholic churches, they should absolutely have the right to do that.”
Furnell said having an organization like Miracle Hill exist and “recruit within a particular group of people” to serve as foster or adoptive parents is “adding to the diversity of options.”
In February, Rep. Joe Kennedy III, D-Mass., Rep. Bobby Scott, D-Va., and Sen. Kamala Harris, D-Calif., reintroduced the Do No Harm Act, an amendment to the Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA) that aims to ensure the 1993 legislation is not used to permit discrimination in the name of religion. Americans United for Separation of Church and State applauded the amendment's reintroduction, saying it would "protect people like our client Aimee Maddonna."
And in March, Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore., along with 40 other senators sent a letter to President Donald Trump objecting to his administration’s issuance of the waiver to Miracle Hill.
“With this waiver, HHS has openly condoned taxpayer-funded discrimination and elevated the religious beliefs of state-contracted foster care providers over the best interest of vulnerable children in the foster care system,” the senators wrote.
Maddonna, who “leans conservative,” said she is disappointed by the federal government’s decision to support Miracle Hill. “We did not expect the administration to make it so difficult to help kids.”