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Laws that discriminate against same-sex couples and the poor

Jun 12, 2015

There’s been a myth for a long time that Governor Rick Snyder is really a moderate on social issues, who sometimes is forced to go along with the right wing of his party in order to try to get votes for the rest of his agenda.

Well, what happened this week ought to make people think twice about that. Yesterday, the governor signed a set of bills allowing so-called “faith-based” adoption agencies to discriminate against same-sex couples if they claim to be doing so because of “sincerely held” religious beliefs.

The legislation doesn’t mention gay people, but everyone knows that’s what this is about.

Now, technically Michigan doesn’t now allow same-sex couples to adopt anyway. Nor does the state allow same-sex marriage.

But most people believe that the U.S. Supreme Court is soon likely to rule that people of the same gender can marry each other, which will probably wipe out all sorts of laws like this one, or send state attorneys general scurrying into the courts.

It isn’t clear whether this was intended to insulate Michigan from such a decision, or be a symbolic waving of the religious flag.

Perhaps the governor is thinking that even if these bills are invalidated, he can say to the religious right, “Don’t blame me, I tried.” It is also very possible that these laws will be found unconstitutional anyway. That’s because they sanction discrimination for religious reasons by agencies receiving state funds.

Yesterday, I asked a couple major constitutional experts about this, and they said it is unquestionably unconstitutional. The American Civil Liberties Union said their only dilemma was whether to file suit in state or federal court. In the legislature itself, the issue was eloquently framed by State Senator Steve Bieda, who said,

“Specifically, these bills allow faith-based agencies to use taxpayer money – public money – to facilitate the adoption of children who are wards of the state and turn away people who do not share their religious beliefs."

"That is both unconstitutional and illegal under Michigan’s Elliot-Larsen Civil Rights Act.”

There is, however, the problem that the state is heavily dependent on these faith-based agencies for adoption services, period. They handle at least half of them.

State officials should be thinking about alternatives, but as far as I can tell, they’re not. The governor signed another bill yesterday that was mostly overlooked, a bill that would cut off cash assistance for families with a truant child who doesn’t show up in school.

I wonder if the governor realizes that everybody doesn’t come from a nuclear family with some degree of education and upwardly mobile middle class values.

For some folks, family is a theory, with “caregivers” so dysfunctional that they aren’t involved in their children’s education.

What does the state gain by making these children go hungry?

What if you have a dysfunctional family where one kid is truant and the others are working hard to go to school and better themselves?

This law would punish the good kids. It is usually tempting to use an ax when you really need a scalpel. And it’s nearly always the wrong approach.

Jack Lessenberry is Michigan Radio's political analyst. Views expressed in his essays are his own and do not necessarily reflect those of Michigan Radio, its management or the station licensee, The University of Michigan.