Appeals Court to Hear Legal Challenge of Christian Adoption Agency Forced to Change Placement Policy or Close

SYRACUSE, N.Y. — The Second Circuit Court of Appeals will soon hear the case of a New York foster and adoption agency that is facing an ultimatum from the State to either allow placement in homes where there is not both a mother and a father or discontinue its child placement services altogether. The court issued an emergency order on Monday that allows New Hope Family Services of Syracuse to continue with already-existing adoption cases while litigation is underway. Oral argument is scheduled for Nov. 13.

“New Hope will suffer irreparable injury without the requested preliminary injunction pending appeal,” the three-judge panel concluded. “A denial of the injunction would trigger defendant’s demand that, within fifteen days, New Hope either compromise its religious beliefs by providing the demanded confirmation of compliance with [the law] or close its adoption ministry. Both options demonstrate specific, irreparable First Amendment injury …”

In the meantime, New Hope Family Services has agreed not to open any new adoption cases until the matter is decided by the court. The judges also consider any perceived discrimination against homosexuals in the interim to be hypothetical as “the motion record does not demonstrate the existence of any such couples” seeking to utilize New Hope.

As previously reported, New Hope Family Services, 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 2018 by a representative of the New York Office of Children and Family Services (OFCS) 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.”

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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 in May, Judge Mae D’Agnostino — who was nominated to the bench by then-President Barack Obama — 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.

She also concluded 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 by allowing child placement in same-sex or unwed homes.

“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 wrote.

“All that is forbidden is discrimination against prospective adoptive parents on the basis of their marital status and/or sexual orientation.”

New Hope Family Services appealed the ruling, and on Monday, the Second Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that while it is difficult to say whether or not D’Agnostino’s dismissal of the case will be overturned, the organization at least merits the right to complete any existing adoption efforts while the legal challenge is underway.

“[C]ourts considering Free Exercise Clause claims in the context of religious organizations providing adoption or foster care services have reached different conclusions depending on the circumstances,” it noted.

“In any event, the strong public interest pertaining to adoption services, i.e., the welfare of children, both those already adopted and those awaiting adoption, is best served by granting rather than denying the requested injunction,” the court outlined. “By allowing New Hope to continue its review of already pending adoption applications, the injunction avoids delaying the benefits of adoption to children awaiting placement.”

Read the order in full here.

The religious liberties organization Alliance Defending Freedom (ADF), which is representing New Hope Family Services in court, applauded the temporary injunction on Tuesday.

“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,” Senior Counsel Roger Brooks said in a statement. “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.”

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