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

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 resettled in Lansing. Volunteers and staff 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, 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—often serving those who fled their homeland due to persecution for their sexual orientation.

Caring for the stranger in our midst

No other agency in Lansing has the capacity, experience, and community access to provide the vital refugee resettlement services available through St. Vincent. Without St. Vincent, around one hundred refugees will arrive in Lansing each year without the tools necessary to thrive in the United States.

But in 2019, the Ingham County Board of Commissioners decided to exclude St. Vincent (and only St. Vincent) from a program that helps provide social services to refugees in Lansing, despite the fact that the Board has said repeatedly that St. Vincent provides excellent services. Further, the Board threatened to end its partnership with St. Vincent, thus putting crucial refugee health services at risk. The Board had done all this in explicit retaliation for St. Vincent’s ongoing lawsuit against the State of Michigan. In that case, St. Vincent challenged 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 violated the First Amendment. The U.S. Constitution prohibits both religious discrimination and retaliation by government officials against those who have the courage to defend their First Amendment rights in court. Ingham County Commissioners have even called St. Vincent “morally bankrupt” and made numerous false allegations about the agency at public meetings. The government cannot discriminate against an organization simply because it dislikes the agency’s sincere religious beliefs. The Board admitted that St. Vincent’s refugee services are excellent and that the only reason it wanted to break ties with St. Vincent is because it disagreed with the Catholic agency’s sincere religious beliefs at issue in a separate lawsuit. St. Vincent’s religious beliefs, and its refugee services, should not be threatened for the sake of scoring cheap political points.

On March 7, 2022, a Michigan district court ruled for St. Vincent, saying, “the Board has singled out St. Vincent, not for its compelling interest in advancing certain community programs, but to punish St. Vincent for its religious beliefs.” St. Vincent will soon receive a determination on what relief it will receive given the Board’s discrimination.

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.


Buck v. Gordon

Faith-Based Foster Care Fact Sheet

A national foster care crisis

Our nation is facing a national foster care crisis. Thousands of vulnerable children are waiting for their forever family, but there are not enough families willing to foster and adopt.

There are over 13,000 foster children in Michigan alone. Each year, over 600 Michigan children “age out” of the foster system, meaning that at the age of 18 they are on their own, never having found a family to provide stability, love and support or a permanent place to call home. No one addresses this issue more effectively than faith-based agencies. That’s why the State of Michigan depends on private agencies like St. Vincent Catholic Charities to recruit and support foster and adoptive families.

The ACLU and the Attorney General of Michigan try to end ties with faith-based agencies

St. Vincent is particularly good at finding homes for sibling groups, older children, and children with special needs. In 2017, St. Vincent recruited more new adoptive families than nearly 90 percent of the other agencies in its service area. St. Vincent also helped Melissa and Chad Buck adopt five children with special needs and continues to provide them with loving support and resources.

Yet in March 2019, the Attorney General of Michigan announced a new policy to try to end the state’s vital partnership with faith-based agencies like St. Vincent. The state claims this action is necessary to protect same-sex couples, but no same-sex couple has ever been unable to foster or adopt because of St. Vincent’s religious beliefs, and St. Vincent refers any couples it cannot serve to other agencies who can. The state’s actions will only lead to fewer agencies to help all parents and harm to thousands of children who are in desperate need of loving homes.

Becket defends foster children, families, and St. Vincent Catholic Charities

On April 15, 2019, Becket filed a lawsuit representing a former foster child, the parents of five adopted children with special needs, and St. Vincent Catholic Charities, asking the court to allow faith-based agencies to continue what they do best: uniting children with loving families. Oral argument was heard on August 22, 2019. On September 26, 2019, the district court ordered the State of Michigan to continue working with St. Vincent while this case continues, ruling that “the State’s real goal is not to promote non-discriminatory child placements, but to stamp out St. Vincent’s religious belief and replace it with the State’s own.”

On January 26, 2022, in light of the Supreme Court decision in Fulton, the State of Michigan entered a settlement agreement allowing St. Vincent Catholic Charities to continue its vital ministry.

Importance to religious liberty

  • Individual freedom: The government discriminates against religious groups if it prevents them from providing services simply based on their religious beliefs.
  • Public square: Faith-based organizations have the same right as secular organizations to operate in the public square. Religion in the public square is not a threat, but rather a natural expression of a natural human impulse.
  • Free Speech: The government can’t coerce religious organizations to speak a government-approved message. It cannot force them to choose between closing their doors and engaging in speech and actions contrary to their religious teaching.

InterVarsity Christian Fellowship v. Wayne State University

Community and service for 75 years

The InterVarsity student group on Wayne State campus began in the 1940s as one of the first InterVarsity chapters in the United States, instituted as a place for students to come together and share their faith. Over the years, it has hosted campus discussions on issues like human trafficking, helped clean up blighted neighborhoods in Detroit, and volunteered at the campus food pantry. Most of all, InterVarsity has created a thriving community of students who come together for Bible study, worship, friendship and support during their college careers. This is particularly important at Wayne State, since it is a commuter campus and many students can struggle to find a place where they belong.

Kicked off campus for their religious beliefs

In 2017, InterVarsity applied to renew its student organization status, a renewal the students thought would be automatic. Instead, the Dean of Students’ office told them that their chapter constitution was unacceptable. According to Wayne State, InterVarsity did not meet the necessary requirements because its expectation that its leaders embrace its faith was “discriminatory.” But asking leaders to share its faith was a matter of basic integrity and was an absolute necessity to remaining a Christian group. And it had never been an issue in the prior 75 years on campus. Further, student membership is open to all, and all are invited to group events. Yet in October 2017, Wayne State abruptly derecognized the group and canceled all its existing meeting reservations.

Meanwhile, the university recognizes more than 400 student groups, and allows them to select their leaders. The Secular Student Alliance can require leaders to be secularists, Students for Life can require its members to be pro-life, and more than a dozen fraternities and sororities can limit membership to one sex. These requirements are normal and acceptable, yet the school blatantly discriminated against InterVarsity by barring it from having the same ability to select leaders who share and live by its mission.

InterVarsity stands up to religious discrimination

With Becket’s help, on March 6, 2018, the student group sued Wayne State University to protect their right to be treated like other groups and select leaders who share its faith and mission. By specifically targeting religious groups, Wayne State is violating its own policy against religious discrimination—in addition to the First Amendment.

After Becket took Wayne State, as well as Michigan Governor Richard Snyder and Attorney General Bill Schuette, to court, the school relented and reinstated InterVarsity on campus. Now, the university is asking a federal court to give it the power to kick the group off campus at a later time. In June 2018, Becket filed two briefs seeking a permanent fix to the school’s discriminatory policy, which allows more than 90 student groups to choose leaders who agree with them – but not InterVarsity. In July 2018, InterVarsity dropped its lawsuit against Michigan Governor Richard Snyder and Attorney General Bill Schuette after they acknowledged that Michigan universities must respect the rights of religious student groups to choose their own leaders.

The parties filed motions for summary judgment in October 2020. Becket filed its reply brief, asking the court to permanently forbid Wayne State from kicking IVCF off campus and award IVCF proper damages, on December 3, 2020. Oral argument in the case was heard in March of 2021, and on April 5, 2021, a federal court ruled in favor of InterVarsity, protecting its status as a campus club and holding Wayne State University officials responsible for violating InterVarsity’s First Amendment Rights.

Importance to religious liberty

  • Education: There is a nation-wide trend of curbing free speech—especially religious speech—on college campuses. But students do not forfeit their First Amendment rights to freedom of speech, freedom of religious exercise, and freedom of association when studying at a public university.
  • Public square: Religion is a natural part of human culture and should not be scrubbed from the public square. This includes public university campuses, which are reflections of the students who attend them, including students with religious beliefs.
  • Religious communities: Becket’s 2012 Supreme Court case Hosanna-Tabor guarantees the right of religious groups to select their own leaders without government interference or entanglement.

Dumont v. Lyon

WEBSITE for Religious Adoption Cases

A Desperate Need 

There is a national foster care crisis: more and more vulnerable children are being placed in the foster care system, and there aren’t enough families to care for them. For the nearly 13,000 children in Michigan foster care, nothing is more important than finding a loving, permanent home. Each year, over 600 Michigan children “age out” of the foster system, meaning that at the age of 18 they are on their own, never having found a family to provide stability, love and support. With so many children in need, and a shortage of families willing to take them in, the State of Michigan relies on private agencies like St. Vincent Catholic Charities. Like other agencies, St. Vincent partners with the state to recruit and support foster and adoptive families. St. Vincent is particularly good at finding homes for sibling groups, older children, and children with special needs. In 2017, St. Vincent recruited more new adoptive families than nearly 90 percent of the other agencies in its service area.

ACLU would put children’s needs last 

In September 2017, the ACLU sued the State of Michigan to forbid the state from partnering with faith-based adoption agencies like St. Vincent, solely because of their religious beliefs about marriage. St. Vincent’s beliefs have never prevented a child from being placed in a loving home. Gay couples working with other agencies have been able to adopt children in St. Vincent’s care in the past. In fact, the ACLU’s clients live closer to four other foster and adoption agencies that would have helped them adopt. Instead of going to these agencies, they have spent years targeting St. Vincent and trying to shut down their programs. 

ACLU’s lawsuit is not about helping kids. It’s about scoring cheap political points at the expense of kids. The only thing that the ACLU’s lawsuit would accomplish is fewer homes for children, especially minority children and those with special needs.

Protecting children and families 

In March 2018, the Court granted Becket’s motion to intervene in the lawsuit on behalf of St. Vincent Catholic Charities, Shamber Flore and the Buck family. Becket asked the court to dismiss this unnecessary lawsuit, but in September 2018 the court decided the case should go forward.

On March 22, 2019, the Attorney General Michigan and the ACLU signed a settlement agreement to try to stop the state from working with faith-based adoption agencies, which could keep thousands of children from finding the loving homes they deserve.

Becket filed a new lawsuit defending St. Vincent and foster families in federal court on April 15, 2019. 

Importance to religious liberty 

  • Individual freedom: The government discriminates against religious groups if it prevents them from providing services simply based on their religious beliefs. 
  • Public squareFaith-based organizations have the same right as secular organizations to operate in the public square. Religion in the public square is not a threat, but rather a natural expression of a natural human impulse. 
  • Establishment Clause: A state does not violate the Establishment Clause when it partners with faith-based agencies to further the interests of a state initiative. In this case, private adoption agencies provide critical resources to address a state issue: the shortage of families willing and able to adopt children in the foster care system. 

Bormuth v. County of Jackson, Michigan

A tradition dating back to the nation’s founding

In the County of Jackson, Michigan, Pagan activist Peter Bormuth tried to stop small-town county commissioners from continuing their tradition of voluntary prayer before their meetings.

The practice of legislative prayer can be traced back to the time of the Founding Fathers, who did not see it as a forbidden “establishment of religion” but rather as a powerful reminder of their own limited political authority: the people’s inalienable rights did not come from government or its officials, but from a divine source that superseded government.

In May 2017, Becket teamed up with leading religious liberty scholar and Stanford Law School Professor Michael McConnell to file a friend-of-the-court brief in the Sixth Circuit, arguing that the Founding Fathers would never have viewed legislator-led legislative prayer as creating an official state church, which the First Amendment prohibits.

What is an establishment of religion?

The job of the First Amendment’s Establishment Clause is to prevent the government from establishing a state church, but determining what establishes a state church has been notoriously difficult for courts.

In 1971, the Supreme Court created a three-part test that attempted to answer that question in the notorious Lemon v. Kurtzman case. The Lemon test was immediately a disaster. Its malleable approach ignored what the Founders considered to be an establishment of religion, invited anti-religious activists to file lawsuits against anything that looked vaguely religious, and led to unpredictable outcomes.

Justice Scalia famously compared the Lemon test to a zombie that frightened small-town America with arbitrary rulings and massive attorneys’ fees. Lemon’s reign toppled memorials to police officers, ended services to prisoners, and censored historic landmarks.

Three years ago, the Supreme Court finally put Lemon in its grave. In its Town of Greece v. Galloway ruling, the Court replaced Lemon’s subjective test with a command that any Establishment Clause test must start with an objective evaluation of our nation’s history. Town of Greece said that because legislative prayer was nothing like what the Founders considered to be an establishment of religion, and in fact was something the Founders approved and practiced, it didn’t violate the Establishment Clause.

The court rejects Lemon and takes the historical approach

Bormuth tried to resurrect the Lemon test and ignore the Town of Greece ruling in two ways: his arguments ignored the history that legislators have opened meetings with prayer since before the founding of the country, and it ignored that Town of Greece explicitly protected legislative prayer.

The full Sixth Circuit rejected both elements of Bormuth’s gambit—following Town of Greece, it ignored Lemon and took history seriously. And because the Sixth Circuit follows Town of Greece, its ruling directly conflicts with another legislative prayer case, Lund v. Rowan County, recently decided by the entire Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals.

On January 5, 2018 Bormuth petitioned the Supreme Court to hear his case but the petition was denied in June 2018. The Sixth Circuit denied rehearing the case on August 24, 2018.

Importance to Religious Liberty:

  • Public square: Because religious exercise is natural to human beings, it is natural to human culture. Religious expression, including legislative prayer, should not be treated as dangerous or scrubbed from our public discourse.

Advocate Health Care Network v. Stapleton

Advocate Health Care Network v. Stapleton
St. Peter’s Healthcare v. Kaplan
Dignity Health v. Rollins
Overall v. Ascension Health

Status: On June 5, 2017, U.S. Supreme Court voted unanimously 8-0 protecting religious hospitals.

Faith-based hospitals draw inspiration from their religious heritage. Driven by their faith to provide compassionate care, these hospitals treat people of all faiths and backgrounds, and their wellness services go beyond just providing medical care. For example, Saint Peter’s Family Health Center also serves juvenile victims of abuse, economically disadvantaged families and mentally disabled or violence-prone youth. And Catholic Health Initiatives provides millions annually to benefit programs and services for the poor, such as free clinics.

These faith-driven hospitals also provide generous benefits to their employees, including pensions through the hospitals’ comprehensive church pension plans. Yet their beliefs and the charitable work they do are being threatened for no reason: a group of plaintiffs’ lawyers are targeting these hospitals for a payoff, dragging them to court and demanding that they pay their attorney fees. Their argument? That hospital ministries are not religious enough to have a tax-exempt church pension plan under The Employee Retirement Income Security Act (ERISA). However, it is not the job of lawyers to decide that hospitals can’t be part of a church, and the IRS has rightly viewed these ministries as part of a larger church for over 30 years.

The legal campaign against faith-based hospitals began in 2013. In 2015, the case Overall v. Ascension Health was settled. In 2016 three other cases were appealed to the Supreme Court, while almost a hundred more are waiting in lower courts across the country. On August 15, 2016, Becket filed a friend-of-the-court brief at the Supreme Court supporting the hospitals and their right to freely exercise their religious-based mission to provide compassionate and excellent healthcare according to their faith.

The Supreme Court heard oral argument in March 2017. On June 5, 2017, the U.S. Supreme Court voted unanimously 8-0 to protect religious hospitals founded and run by nuns, allowing them to continue providing generous benefits for their employees as well as free health services to their inner-city communities.

Ward v. Wilbanks

Julea Ward was kicked out of Eastern Michigan University’s counseling program after she declined to counsel a student against her religious beliefs. Represented by the Alliance Defending Freedom, Ward lost in the lower courts, but in January 2012 the Sixth Circuit issued a major victory for the rights of individuals with religious beliefs. The court ruled that Eastern Michigan University may have violated the Constitution by expelling Ward based on her religious beliefs, and sent the case back to the district court. In December 2012, Eastern Michigan University quietly settled the lawsuit.

Ward was expelled for trying to use a patient referral mechanism that other student counselors were allowed to use. Her sin?  She wanted to refer patients for religious reasons; she felt she could not provide good-faith relationship advice to same-sex couples because of her religious beliefs. The university allowed student counselors to refer patients for all sorts of other reasons, and Ward violated no written university policy; Ward was simply being targeted.

The university earned a rebuke from the Sixth Circuit, which ruled that the university was “permitting secular exemptions but not religious ones” and “failing to apply the policy in an even-handed, much less a faith-neutral, manner to Ward.” This reasoning echoed Becket’s amicus brief in the appeal.

Ward v. Wilbanks is another example of government officials using their power to force ideological conformity onto those who dissent from academic pieties. The university’s decision to give up, pay Ward, and issue her a clean academic record indicates that the First Amendment is still a bulwark against the bureaucratic urge to squelch diversity of ideas – but it is a bulwark that still requires defenders.

Becket submitted a friend-of-the-court brief in the case, making arguments that the court ultimately adopted under the Free Exercise Clause. Becket also assisted with Ms. Ward’s primary brief.

*Photo Courtesy of ADF

EEOC v. Hosanna-Tabor Evangelical Lutheran Church and School

“The church must be free to choose those who will guide it on its way.” – Chief Justice Roberts, Supreme Court Opinion

A church dispute

In 2007, Hosanna-Tabor Evangelical Lutheran Church and School in Redford, Michigan found itself in a surprising position: a commissioned minister and teacher was suing them. Cheryl Perich, a commissioned minister in the church, taught fourth grade, taught religion, and led worship services. The church school had dismissed her for insubordination, disruptive conduct, and threatening to sue the church—all in violation of church teachings. The Church and its denomination have long taught that disputes over fitness for ministry must be resolved within the denomination.

But in September 2007, Perich sued in federal court, joined by the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), claiming that the school retaliated against her for threatening to file a discrimination claim.

Can government force a church to retain a minister who violates church teachings?

The church argued that forcing it to retain Perich as a commissioned minister and teacher against its will was an unconstitutional restriction on its right to choose its own religious leaders – a concept known as “ministerial exception.” The federal trial court agreed, applying the ministerial exception, and ruled for the church in October 2008. But after Perich and the EEOC appealed the decision, the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals ruled against the church in March 2010, ruling that Perich was not a minister but merely a teacher. Becket stepped in to represent Hosanna-Tabor as it appealed to the US. Supreme Court.

Because of the difference of opinion among the federal courts of appeals concerning which church employees count as ministers, the Supreme Court agreed to hear the case. Oral argument was held in October 2011.

At the Supreme Court, Perich and the EEOC escalated their arguments, arguing that there should be no ministerial exception at all and that any minister—including a priest, a rabbi, or a pastor of a congregation—should be able to sue the church that employs him. Becket’s arguments rejected this extreme perspective on church-state relations, instead explaining that the ministerial exception is a constitutionally protected right, one that avoids unnecessary entanglement between government and churches and allows religious groups the autonomy they need to operate freely.

Supreme Court rules 9-0: churches are free to choose their own leaders

On January 11, 2012, the Supreme Court ruled unanimously for Hosanna-Tabor, a decision the Wall Street Journal called one of the “most important religious liberty cases in a half century.” The decision adopted Becket’s arguments, saying that religious groups should be free from government interference when they choose their leaders.

The court rejected the government’s narrow view of religious liberty as “extreme,” “untenable,” and “remarkable.” The decision stated: “We cannot accept the remarkable view that the Religion Clauses have nothing to say about a religious organization’s freedom to select its own ministers.”

For the in-depth story and more about this case, listen to our Stream of Conscience podcast episode, Synods and Statutes.

Importance to religious liberty:

  • Freedom of religious groups to choose their own leaders: This case set an important precedent, confirming the principle of “ministerial exception” that ensures religious groups have the right to choose their own leaders.
  • Freedom of religious groups from state intrusion on religious affairs: Both church and state are better off when the government isn’t meddling in the internal religious affairs of a religious ministry, including a religious school.

Living Water Church of God (Okemos Christian Center) v. Township of Meridian

One of the fundamental principles underlying “freedom exercise of religion” is the right to establish church facilities of sufficient size to meet a congregation’s needs.

For several years, Meridian Township, Michigan has blocked the Living Water Church of God from expanding its facility to carry out vital ministries of the Church. In August 2005, a federal district court held that the Township’s actions violated RLUIPA and stopped the Township from taking any further actions to prevent the Church from expanding its facility in order to accommodate its growing congregation and operate a Christian school.   The township appealed.

Becket lead the appeal at the Sixth Circuit, but unfortunately, the Court ruled that the township’s denial did not place a substantial burden on Living Water.

“At the heart of the matter is the right of any religious organization to practice its beliefs without government interference,” said Becket attorney Derek Gaubatz. “That includes protection from laws that unfairly stop church members from gathering together for basic activities like worship and religious teaching.”


Greater Bible Way Temple of Jackson v. City of Jackson

Greater Bible Way Temple is a large church with a commitment to serving the community of Jackson, Michigan. After several years of growth, it purchased some property across the street from its existing church in order to expand its ministries. Because of its religious commitment to the poor and needy of Jackson, it dedicated the land to providing low-cost housing to the disabled, elderly, and others in need. The Church understood from prior conversations with the city that the city was interested in seeing housing on that land; the land is zoned residential and is just a block from a large apartment complex. The church asked the city for a rezoning through a highly discretionary process, and the city denied the request. This prevented the church from proceeding with its ministry.

The Church sued the city of Jackson for violations of RLUIPA. Two lower courts agreed, finding that the city had imposed a substantial burden on the Church’s religious exercise. In a stunning decision, the Michigan Supreme Court reversed those decisions, ruling that not only was there no substantial burden, but that RLUIPA’s “substantial burden” provision does not even apply to rezoning actions. The Court even went so far as to say that the city’s interests in uniform zoning laws satisfied strict scrutiny, an extremely stringent legal test that requires the government to prove interests so strong that they could justify racial discrimination, content-based speech restrictions, and forced sterilization. The Michigan Supreme Court’s opinion does not explain how, under its rationale, a rezoning action could ever violate RLUIPA’s “substantial burden” provision.

Unfortunately, the U.S. Supreme Court elected not to hear the Becket Fund’s appeal.

Haven Shores Community Church v. City of Grand Haven

In a settlement reached on December 20, 2000, the City of Grand Haven, Michigan agreed that a small local storefront church could occupy a storefront after all. It was the first case resolved under the terms of the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act of 2000 (RLUIPA).

Haven Shores Community Church signed a lease for a storefront property in Grand Haven in May of 1999, but when Rev. David Bailey went to apply for building permit to modify the space, he was told by city officials that religious meetings and worship were not permitted at that location under city zoning laws. Even though Grand Haven’s zoning ordinance for the “B-1 Community Business District” specifically allows for “private clubs,” “fraternal organizations,” “lodge halls,” “funeral homes,” “theaters,” and “assembly halls” or similar places of public assembly,  the church’s claim that it too was a “place of public assembly” was rejected by multiple city offices, including the City Council.

On March 13, 2000, Becket filed suit in federal district court on behalf of the church, charging that the city had violated their constitutional rights to freedom of speech, religion, assembly, due process and equal protection of the laws.

However, when President Clinton signed the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act (RLUIPA) on September 22, 2000, Becket was able to immediately file an amended complaint in the case,seeking relief under RLUIPA.  After the RLUIPA claims were filed, attorneys for Becket and the City of Grand Haven agreed to a consent judgment that settled the case in favor of Haven Shores.  Now there is a church alongside the funeral homes, theaters and assembly halls of Haven Shores.