ALBANY, N.Y. — A federal judge nominated to the bench by then-President Barack Obama has ruled that the New York State Office of Children and Family Services (OCFS) did not discriminate or act with anti-religious bias when it issued an ultimatum to a Christian adoption agency to either change its policies in regard to only placing children in homes with both a mother and father or discontinue its foster and adoption program.
“Ultimately, OCFS stands on firm ground in requiring authorized agencies to abide by New York’s non-discrimination policies when administering public services,” wrote U.S. District Judge Mae D’Agostino. “[T]he First Amendment does not prohibit government regulation of religiously motivated conduct so long as that regulation is not a veiled attempt to suppress disfavored religious beliefs.”
“[W]hile New Hope may assert that OCFS’s actions were not driven by a sincere commitment to equality, but rather by anti-religious bias, the current record does not show religious persecution or bias,” she concluded.
As previously reported, New Hope Family Services of Syracuse, which was founded in 1965 by a pastor and seeks “to be Christ’s hands extended to offer hope and help to people with pregnancy, parenting, adoption, or post-abortion needs,” was visited in September by a representative of the New York OCFS for an official review that included meeting with staff and perusing sample records.
Syracuse regional office Director Sara Simon later sent New Hope Interim Director Judy Geyer a letter that, while requesting a few policy adjustments, praised the organization for its work.
“Our office found that your program has a number of strengths in providing adoption services within the community. One of which is the strong emphasis on assisting the birth parents in making an informed decision for their newborn, providing them time to make the decision, along with a supportive and detailed adoptive family selection process,” the correspondence read.
However, just days later, Geyer received a phone call from Suzanne Colligan, who had conducted the review, to advise that a problem had been found with the faith-based organization’s placement policies. Colligan reportedly told Geyer that New Hope must allow placement with unmarried couples and homosexuals, or the adoption agency would be “choosing to close.”
Geyer said that New Hope could in no way violate its religious convictions and that the organization would “never choose to close. You will be forcing us to close.” According to the legal challenge, Colligan advised during the call that “[s]ome Christian ministries have decided to compromise and stay open.”
Geyer soon after received a formal letter from Laura Velez, the deputy commissioner of OCFS division of child welfare and community services.
“It was found that the agency’s policy pertaining to not placing ‘children with those who are living together without the benefit of marriage’ or ‘same sex couples’ violates Title 18 NYCRR § 421.3, and is discriminatory and impermissible,” Velez wrote.
She requested a formal response in regard to revising the policy to eliminate the exclusion, and warned that “should the agency fail to bring the policy into compliance with the regulation, OFCS will be unable to approve continuation of NHFS’ current adoption program and NHFS will be required to submit a close-out plan for the adoption program.”
New Hope Family Services consequently sought an injunction in court, but on Thursday, Judge D’Agnostino ruled that the government had applied its non-discrimination policy fairly and equally, and that New Hope’s claims regarding violations of the First and Fourteenth Amendment could not be substantiated.
“[New Hope’s] complaint … alleges that OCFS enforced or was in the process of enforcing [the non-discrimination regulation] against other faith-based providers, including ‘several Catholic providers, a Jewish provider, an LDS, and a Muslim provider’ who shared New Hope’s beliefs ‘concerning life, marriage, the family, and human sexuality,'” she wrote.
“Such consistent enforcement of this neutral regulation against other authorized agencies engaging in the same discriminatory conduct as alleged here renders New Hope’s allegation of discriminatory animus implausible,” D’Agnostino stated.
She said that because New Hope had failed to provide any evidence that other entities were permitted to “exclude individuals authorized to adopt from the pool of prospective adoptive parents” without being held to the same standard, the adoption agency could not allege that it was being treated differently.
D’Agnostino also ruled that OCFS’ non-discrimination policy did not violate New Hope’s religious exercise rights because the organization could continue to make its objections known while simultaneously complying with the State.
“New Hope is not being forced to state that it approves of non-married or same sex couples. Rather, the only statement being made by approving such couples as adoptive parents is that they satisfy the criteria set forth by the State, without regard to any views as to the marital status or sexual orientation of the couple,” she wrote.
“Given the extensive religious ministry and information provided to potential adoptive parents, there is no doubt that New Hope’s general disapproval of cohabiting unmarried couples and same sex couples will continue to be made clear. Indeed, nothing is preventing New Hope from continuing to share its religious beliefs throughout the entire process,” D’Agostino continued.
“All that is forbidden is discrimination against prospective adoptive parents on the basis of their marital status and/or sexual orientation.”
She urged the parties to reach a compromise in the matter out of court.
However, Alliance Defending Freedom (ADF), which represented New Hope Family Services in court, says that the agency is considering an appeal — and urgently as it fears that the entity could be shut down at any time.
“Protecting this religious nonprofit does nothing to interfere with other adoption providers,” ADF Legal Counsel Jeana Hallock said in a statement. “Banishing New Hope as a faith-based adoption provider, however, 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. In short, everyone loses if the government forces New Hope to shut down.”
Acts 5:29 reads, “Then Peter and the other apostles answered and said, ‘We ought to obey God rather than men.'”
The late preacher and author A.W. Tozer also once said, “There is no Christian victory or blessing if we refuse to turn away from the things that God hates. Even if it is accepted in the whole social class of which you are a part, turn away from it. Even if there is something that has come to be accepted by our generation, turn away from it if it is wrong and an offense to our holy and righteous Savior.”