GRAND RAPIDS — Bethany Christian Services’ announcement this month that it would begin to help LGBTQ parents nationwide adopt children was a major policy reversal for the global adoption agency and, for civil rights advocates, appeared to be a step toward progress.
However, some from the region’s LGBTQ community have met the news with caution and skepticism based on the organization’s long-standing policy to not support adoption through LGBTQ parents. Meanwhile, nonprofit experts say the new policy reflects a growing shift among faith-based service organizations as public opinion strongly favors LGBTQ civil protections.
In Michigan, Bethany Christian opened adoptions for LGBTQ parents two years ago as part of a settlement agreement with the state. At the time, organization officials said they were “disappointed” in the agreement but would abide by it. The recent move applies to Bethany Christian operations nationwide.
Holland-based LGBTQ resource center Out on the Lakeshore is “happy to see the policy change, but we also recognize that there’s pain and trauma caused from their past policies,” said Director Jeff Sorensen. “You know, people being turned away and directed to other agencies, and just not being supported when they’re going through that adoption process.”
In recent months, Out on the Lakeshore had been in contact with Bethany Christian officials over how the Christian-based adoption agency could better serve the LGBTQ community, Sorensen said.
“They initially reached out to us to talk about potentially working together on foster families,” Sorensen said. “We decided not to pursue any sort of formal partnership with them at the time because of the existing policies in place, and the fact that those policies were not supportive nationally of the LGBTQ community.”
Despite Bethany Christian’s recent policy change, Out on the Lakeshore remains hesitant to partner with the organization as it waits to see how committed it is to the LGBTQ community, Sorensen said.
“While I think it’s a great step, I don’t think that the view the LGBTQ community has of Bethany Christian Services is going to change super quickly or without having that visible proof that the policy really has changed in practice,” Sorenson said.
Bethany Christian Services officials were unavailable to comment for this story but issued a prepared statement from Senior Vice President of Public and Government Affairs Nathan Bult: “For the past 75 years, Bethany Christian Services has never wavered from our mission of demonstrating the love and compassion of Jesus to children and families. We help families stay together, we reunify families who are separated, and we help vulnerable children find safe, stable homes when they cannot remain in their own.
“These days, families look a lot different than they did when we started. And Bethany is committed to welcoming and serving all of them.
“For us to carry out our mission, we are building a broad coalition of people — finding families and resources for children in the greatest need. The people we serve deserve to know they are worthy of being safe, loved, and connected. The need is great, so we are taking an ‘all hands on deck’ approach.”
Grand Rapids Pride Center Interim Director Jazz McKinney shares Sorensen’s caution.
“I’m feeling conflicted. Yes, I’m happy to see it absolutely because it already should have been done,” McKinney said. “However, I’m very conflicted because Bethany Christian Services has a longstanding history of harm to the LGBTQ community.”
Bethany Christian Services previously contacted the Grand Rapids Pride Center following a settlement agreement with the state and a 2017 lawsuit brought by the American Civil Liberties Union. The lawsuit argued that organizations with discriminatory business practices should not be allowed to receive support from state contracts. Bethany Christian faced a similar lawsuit in Philadelphia.
Meanwhile, Catholic Charities West Michigan sued the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services for mandating the service of LGBTQ families. Catholic Charities’ lawsuit is ongoing. Catholic Social Services filed a similar lawsuit in Philadelphia arguing that its religious liberties were being violated through the termination of city contracts. A federal judge denied this religious discrimination claim in 2018.
With increasing public support for nondiscrimination protections for the LGBTQ community, some faith-based organizations face increased pressure to serve this demographic, particularly when government funding is in play.
According to a poll conducted by the Public Religion Research Institute in 2019, 69 percent of Americans support “broad nondiscrimination protections for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people.” Similar support is growing within the business community, which also views LGBTQ protections as crucial for talent attraction and retention.
At the same time, organizations’ positions against LGBTQ inclusion may also face backlash from within the faith community, which can create a uniquely difficult balancing act, nonprofit experts say.
“I think we’re just seeing people across the spectrum see that the sky didn’t fall when that change was made, so we’re seeing growing acceptance,” Teri Behrens, executive director of Grand Valley State University’s Johnson Center for Philanthropy, told MiBiz. “I think it’s still a slow process of change, but I would expect some additional organizations will open up their services to a broader range of people. And there will be some who won’t.”
LGBTQ and faith
As well, religion can be a challenging topic within the LGBTQ community. Out on the Lakeshore offers its Out in Faith program, in which local LGBTQ-affirming church leaders discuss issues concerning faith and identity.
The program “has been kind of an open-ended opportunity to talk with those leaders and talk through their own struggles when it comes to faith and their identity,” Sorensen explained. “And to hear from the religious leaders themselves about why they’re open and affirming in their own beliefs and what the bible says on it, or similar situations.”
The Grand Rapids Pride Center also offers a youth group alternative for people who may not feel comfortable or welcomed by traditional youth groups. It’s designed to be a safe space for LGBTQ teens to partake in activities and therapeutic discussion. Tying into the Bethany Christian policy change, McKinney notes that LGBTQ youth are at a high risk of abuse in foster homes.
“A lot of people like to think that LGBTQ kids are just acting out. I don’t know how many times I’ve heard: ‘Oh, it’s because they were sexually abused that they’re questioning their gender or questioning their sexuality,’” McKinney said. “No, that’s not it at all. It’s actually the opposite, which is that a lot of LGBTQ kids or youth are targeted for those types of behaviors. It’s not the other way around.”
McKinney is cautiously hopeful that Bethany Christian will continue taking steps to better serve a community that it has rejected in the past and repair relationships. But McKinney admits it won’t be easy.
“You can’t expect us to run to you. You have to come to us,” McKinney said. “You have to reach out, you have to be consistent and don’t be scared that you may be rejected. Because again, we have to protect ourselves as well.”
Continued fight for equality
While Bethany Christian’s policy change is a win for LGBTQ rights, work continues at the state level to advance non-discrimination policies.
Erin Knott, executive director of Equality Michigan and Kalamazoo city commissioner, has worked with Bethany Christian in the past to provide basic training on how to best serve LGBTQ clients and children.
In Michigan, the major policy push is around expanding the Elliott-Larsen Civil Rights Act to include protections for LGBTQ people in the workplace, housing and public accommodations. A ballot initiative as well as bipartisan legislation introduced this month seek to do so.
“We know that the vast majority of Michiganders — over 77 percent — support modernizing our state civil rights laws to include the protections that we’re discussing,” Knott told MiBiz. “And we know corporations such as Dow, Herman Miller, Steelcase and even Amway have all publicly signed on to statements of support around amending the Elliott-Larsen Civil Rights Act or have increased the inclusion and internal benefits that they provide to their employees.”
Knott believes the amendment now has the bipartisan support needed from both the House and Senate to pass. However, it faces opposition from some Republican lawmakers — including Republican Senate Majority Leader Mike Shirkey — if the expansion doesn’t include religious exemptions. Knott led the city of Kalamazoo’s push to withdraw funding for Southwest Michigan First last month after the organization’s hiring of former GOP House Speaker Lee Chatfield who held a similar position as Shirkey while in the Legislature.
“As I’ve stated before, lawmakers who refused to take action for equal rights have a final opportunity right now to be on the right side of history, but we’re not going to support any bills or amendments that allow for a license to discriminate,” Knott said. “Michigan is better than this, our people are better than this.”
Editor’s note: This story was clarified to say Bethan Christian officials were unavailable to comment.
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