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Case Name Buck v. Nessel PB-MI-0027
Docket / Court 1:19-cv-00286-RJJ-PJG ( W.D. Mich. )
State/Territory Michigan
Case Type(s) Public Benefits / Government Services
Case Summary
On April 15th, 2019, St. Vincent Catholic Charities (a Michigan foster care agency) and several of their volunteers filed a complaint in the U.S. District Court for the Western District of Michigan. The plaintiffs sued the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services (MDHHS) and related ... read more >
On April 15th, 2019, St. Vincent Catholic Charities (a Michigan foster care agency) and several of their volunteers filed a complaint in the U.S. District Court for the Western District of Michigan. The plaintiffs sued the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services (MDHHS) and related agencies under 42 U.S.C. § 1983. The plaintiffs, represented by the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty, claimed that the Attorney General and MDHHS had violated their First and Fourteenth Amendment rights and the Religious Freedom Restoration Act by threatening to terminate their state funding because they refused to certify same-sex couples as potential foster parents.

St. Vincent had contracted with the State to provide foster care services, including evaluating and certifying prospective foster parents. Because of its religious beliefs, St. Vincent refused to perform evaluations or certifications of same-sex couples. It did, however, match children with same-sex couples who had been certified by other foster care agencies. The Michigan legislature passed a law in 2015 to protect St. Vincent’s right to continue this practice. But after the general election in 2018, the newly elected Attorney General threatened to terminate St. Vincent’s if it continued to refuse to certify same-sex couples. St. Vincent sought an injunction to stop the State from terminating its contracts.

The dispute over St. Vincent's practices is longstanding. In 2017, the ACLU, on behalf of two same-sex couples, had sued the MDHHS for allowing St. Vincent to refer same-sex foster parents to other agencies based on religious objections. After the new Attorney General was elected, she settled the case with the ACLU. The settlement stipulated that State would prohibit all foster care agencies from turning away same sex-couples. Once St. Vincent initiated their suit, the ACLU moved on May 21st, 2019 to intervene in the case in order to enforce their settlement. Their motion to intervene was denied on June 4th, 2019 and is pending at the Sixth Circuit as of January, 2020. For more information on that case, see Dumont v. Lyon.

In this suit, the plaintiffs moved for a preliminary injunction the day after the case was filed, and the case was assigned to Judge Robert J. Jonker.

On September 26th, 2019, Judge Jonker granted St. Vincent’s request for a preliminary injunction, preventing the State from suspending their contract with St. Vincent. The Judge found that State’s actions were likely an attempt to regulate religious belief in violation of the First Amendment, rather than an attempt to prevent discrimination. The Judge raised the fact that St. Vincent had matched foster children with same-sex couples as evidence that St. Vincent’s conduct was not discriminatory. He also focused on statements made by the Attorney General during her election campaign—including describing the plaintiffs as “hate-mongers”—that the Judge thought indicated a bias against St. Vincent’s religious beliefs. Finally, the Judge held that the preliminary injunction would serve the public interest by allowing St. Vincent to continue to operate instead of burdening Michigan’s already stretched foster care system.

The defendants filed a motion to stay the injunction on October 10th, 2019. Judge Jonker denied the stay on October 22, 2019. On January 6th, 2020, the defendants filed a motion to certify a question as to the proper interpretation of the 2015 law passed by the legislature to the Michigan Supreme Court because whether the law allowed the state to deny funding to the plaintiffs was “a foundational legal issue in this case.” As of January, 2020, a decision on that certification is pending.

The case is ongoing.

Jonah Feitelson - 02/08/2020


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Issues and Causes of Action
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Issues
Constitutional Clause
Equal Protection
Freedom of speech/association
Content of Injunction
Preliminary relief granted
Discrimination-basis
Religion discrimination
General
Adoption
Disparate Treatment
Foster care (benefits, training)
Funding
Gay/lesbian/transgender
Plaintiff Type
Non-profit religious organization
Causes of Action 42 U.S.C. § 1983
Declaratory Judgment Act, 28 U.S.C. § 2201
Ex parte Young (federal or state officials)
Religious Freedom Rest. Act/Religious Land Use and Inst. Persons Act (RFRA/RLUIPA)
Defendant(s) Michigan Department of Health and Human Services
U.S. Department of Health and Human Services
Plaintiff Description A Catholic foster care agency.
Class action status sought No
Class action status granted No
Filed Pro Se No
Prevailing Party None Yet / None
Public Int. Lawyer Yes
Nature of Relief Preliminary injunction / Temp. restraining order
Source of Relief Litigation
Filed 04/15/2019
Case Ongoing Yes
Case Listing CW-MI-0002 : Dumont v. Lyon (E.D. Mich.)
Additional Resources
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  See this case at CourtListener.com (May provide additional documents and, for active cases, real-time alerts)
Docket(s)
1:19-cv-00286-RJJ-PJG (W.D. Mich.)
PB-MI-0027-9000.pdf | Detail
Date: 01/13/2020
Source: PACER [Public Access to Court Electronic Records]
General Documents
Complaint [ECF# 1]
PB-MI-0027-0001.pdf | Detail
Date: 04/15/2019
Source: PACER [Public Access to Court Electronic Records]
Opinion [ECF# 69] (2019 WL 4686425) (W.D. Mich.)
PB-MI-0027-0002.pdf | WESTLAW | Detail
Date: 09/26/2019
Source: PACER [Public Access to Court Electronic Records]
Order [ECF# 84] (W.D. Mich.)
PB-MI-0027-0003.pdf | Detail
Date: 10/22/2019
Source: PACER [Public Access to Court Electronic Records]
show all people docs
Judges Green, Phillip J. Court not on record [Magistrate] show/hide docs
PB-MI-0027-9000
Jonker, Robert James (W.D. Mich.) show/hide docs
PB-MI-0027-0002 | PB-MI-0027-0003 | PB-MI-0027-9000
Plaintiff's Lawyers Bloomfield, William R. (Michigan) show/hide docs
PB-MI-0027-0001 | PB-MI-0027-9000
Coate, Jacob (District of Columbia) show/hide docs
PB-MI-0027-9000
Haun, William (District of Columbia) show/hide docs
PB-MI-0027-9000
Reaves, Nicholas (District of Columbia) show/hide docs
PB-MI-0027-0001 | PB-MI-0027-9000
Rienzi, Mark (District of Columbia) show/hide docs
PB-MI-0027-0001 | PB-MI-0027-9000
Windham, Lori H. (District of Columbia) show/hide docs
PB-MI-0027-0001 | PB-MI-0027-9000
Defendant's Lawyers Bates, Christopher A (District of Columbia) show/hide docs
PB-MI-0027-9000
Boone, Precious Synott (Michigan) show/hide docs
PB-MI-0027-9000
Briggs, Elizabeth R. Husa (Michigan) show/hide docs
PB-MI-0027-9000
Harris, Toni L. (Michigan) show/hide docs
PB-MI-0027-9000
Long, Jeanne Frances (Michigan) show/hide docs
PB-MI-0027-9000
Smith, Joshua S (Michigan) show/hide docs
PB-MI-0027-9000
Sukkar, Anthony Joseph (Michigan) show/hide docs
PB-MI-0027-9000
Other Lawyers Cooper, Leslie (New York) show/hide docs
PB-MI-0027-9000
Kaplan, Jay (Michigan) show/hide docs
PB-MI-0027-9000
Korobkin, Daniel S. (Michigan) show/hide docs
PB-MI-0027-9000
Lonky, Hannah M. (New York) show/hide docs
PB-MI-0027-9000
Ostrager, Ann-Elizabeth (New York) show/hide docs
PB-MI-0027-9000
Schnier, Jason W. (New York) show/hide docs
PB-MI-0027-9000
Siddiky, Leila R. (New York) show/hide docs
PB-MI-0027-9000

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