St. Vincent Catholic Charities v. Ingham County Board of Commissioners

Becket Role:
Counsel
Case Start Date:
December 13, 2019
Deciding Court:
Western District of Michigan
Original Court:
Western District of Michigan

Case Snapshot

For more than 40 years, St. Vincent Catholic Charities has been resettling refugee adults and families in the Lansing, Michigan area. St. Vincent helps refugees find homes, get medical care, find jobs, and build new lives free from the dangers they fled. St. Vincent is the only government-designated refugee resettlement agency serving refugees in Lansing. It is a federally recognized priority resettlement site for LGBTQ refugees. Despite providing crucial support services to around one hundred refugees every year, the Ingham County Board of Commissioners (a local government entity) began discriminating against St. Vincent in 2019. The Board is retaliating against St. Vincent because of the lawsuit it filed against the State of Michigan (Buck v. Gordon), and has publicly criticized the agency’s sincere religious beliefs about marriage. The Board has already excluded St. Vincent from a program that helps agencies provide social services, and is threatening to terminate its relationship with St. Vincent—putting crucial services like refugee health care at risk. Several Commissioners stated publicly that the only reason they don’t want to work with St. Vincent is because they disagree with the agency’s sincere religious beliefs that are at issue in Buck—a separate and unrelated lawsuit regarding foster care and adoption. These retaliatory actions were taken despite the fact that St. Vincent cares for every refugee that comes through its doors, regardless of race, religion, sexual orientation, or gender identity. No religious person or group—no matter how popular or unpopular their religious views may be—should be punished for using the law to defend themselves in court. Without St. Vincent’s refugee resettlement ministry, newly arriving refugees will lack even the most basic services necessary to help them adjust to life in Lansing. Becket is defending St. Vincent against the Ingham County Board’s discriminatory actions so that it can continue doing what its faith compels it to do: being God’s hands and feet for the orphan, the widow, and the refugee.

Status

With Becket’s help, St. Vincent Catholic Charities filed a suit seeking protection from the Ingham County Board’s retaliatory actions on December 13, 2019.

Case Summary

Whatever you do for the least of my brothers

St. Vincent Catholic Charities is driven by faith to minister to the community of Lansing, Michigan. As a Christian organization, St. Vincent believes in the biblical commandment that it must care for the orphan, widow, and refugee.

Accordingly, for more than 40 years, St. Vincent has been providing crucial services to all refugees who have been resettled in Lansing, Michigan. Volunteers and employees do everything they can to make refugees feel safe and welcome in their new, unfamiliar home—from picking refugees up at the airport and locating safe and affordable housing to providing cultural orientation, computer training, and job search services.

St. Vincent is the only government-designated agency that provides these services to refugees in Lansing, and is a federally recognized priority resettlement site for LGBTQ refugees—including for those who have fled their homelands due to persecution for their sexual orientation.

Caring for the stranger in our midst

There is no other agency in Lansing with the capacity, experience, and community access to provide the same level of refugee resettlement services as those provided by St. Vincent. Without St. Vincent’s vital work, over one hundred refugees will arrive in Lansing this year without the tools necessary for a successful transition to life in the United States.

But in 2019, the Ingham County Board decided to exclude St. Vincent from a program that helps provide social services in Lansing, and is threatening to terminate all its work with St. Vincent, which would put crucial refugee health services at risk. The Board is doing this in retaliation for St. Vincent’s ongoing lawsuit against the State of Michigan. In that case, St. Vincent is challenging Michigan’s discriminatory policies regarding the provision of foster care and adoption services (Buck v. Gordon).

Discriminatory retaliation

The Ingham County Board of Commissioners’ actions are clear First Amendment violation. The First Amendment prohibits religious discrimination and also prohibits government officials from retaliating against those who have the courage to defend their First Amendment rights in court. Board members have even called St. Vincent “morally bankrupt” and made false allegations about the agency at public meetings. The government cannot target and discriminate against an organization based solely on its sincere religious beliefs. Nor can it punish a religious person or group for having the courage to defend itself in court. Here, the Board has admitted that St. Vincent’s refugee services are excellent, and the only reason it wants to exclude St. Vincent is because it disagrees with St. Vincent’s sincere religious beliefs that are at issue in a separate lawsuit. St. Vincent’s refugee services are too important to be sacrificed for the sake of scoring political points.

With Becket’s help, St. Vincent Catholic Charities filed a suit seeking relief from the Ingham County Board’s retaliation on December 13, 2019.

Importance to Religious Liberty:

  • Public Square – The government cannot target or discriminate against organizations or individuals because of their sincere religious beliefs, even if those beliefs are expressed publicly or protected through litigation.
  • Religious Communities – Religious institutions have the right to serve those in need according to the dictates of their faith. Unfortunately, the rights of many religious institutions are under attack, sometimes simply because they stand out from the rest of society.
  • Free Speech – Religious people are protected by the First Amendment from being punished for petitioning the government to redress their grievances, including being punished for filing lawsuits to protect their religious ministry.