Explainer: Religious liberty victory at the 2nd Circuit in New Hope Family Services v. Poole

July 23, 2020

In a victory for religious liberty, the 2nd Circuit Court of Appeals issued an opinion involving Chrisitan adoption agencies and its right to place children up for adoption in the best environment possible. The adoption agency, New Hope Family Services based out of Syracuse, works to place children with loving families. The ministry also supports women with unplanned pregnancies by assisting mothers with adoption planning services, temporary foster care, and foster home placement for children.

What is this case about? 

New Hope Family Services maintains the biblical conviction that all children should be raised by a mom and dad. When approached by same-sex couples looking to adopt, New Hope refers the couple to a different adoption agency that can assist with the fulfillment of their request.

The New York Office of Children and Family Services (OCFS) determined that New Hope’s religious policies were discriminatory and a violation of a state regulation that prohibits discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation and marital status. OCFS mandated that New Hope must either change its policy or conform to the state regulation.  

New Hope filed suit against OCFS invoking the Free Exercise and Free Speech Clauses of the First Amendment, arguing the organization has a constitutional right to operate according to its deeply held religious beliefs. The trial court, the Northern District of New York, dismissed the suit, ruling New Hope did not have a plausible claim under the First Amendment of the Constitution. 

In this case, New Hope is represented by attorneys from Alliance Defending Freedom.

What happened?

The 2nd Circuit Court reversed the lower court decision, holding that New Hope did have a plausible claim under the First Amendment of the Constitution. Further, the court held that New Hope is authorized to continue its previous policy of placing children with families the organization sincerely believes is the best environment for raising children. However, the 2nd Circuit remanded the case back to the lower court to resolve the ultimate issue of whether or not the adoptive agency will acquire an exemption from the state regulation under the First Amendment.

Additionally, the Circuit court concluded that the district court should not have dismissed the lawsuit because the faith-based adoption provider had a plausible claim that the New York state regulation was promogulated out of “hostility toward certain religious beliefs.” The court noted also that the New York regulations went further than required by New York law in banning some faith-based adoption providers. The court mentioned that New Hope operated without complaint for over 50 years, it takes no government funding, and has placed well over 1,000 children into adoptive families. 

How is this a victory for religious liberty?

The 2nd Circuit did not rule on the ultimate merits of New Hope’s Free Exercise and Free Speech claims, which means that the lower court will address those questions, which will likely be appealed regardless of the outcome. However, it is significant that the 2nd Circuit did not dismiss New Hope’s claims out of hand and indeed took seriously New Hope’s claims that the New York OCFS’s actions were rooted in hostility towards their beliefs, which would violate Masterpiece Cakeshop v. Colorado Civil Rights Commission.

Further, as religious freedom lawyer advocate Luke Goodrich pointed out, this case has significant implications for a related case that will be heard by the Supreme Court next year, Fulton v. Philadelphia. For more information about the upcoming Fulton case, see ERLC’s explainer on the case.

What comes next in this case now?

Since the Circuit court remanded the decision, the big legal questions now return to the lower district court. In discussing the legal questions that will come before the lower court, the 2nd Circuit stated:

But if some accommodation on this matter is the Court’s expectation, delineating constitutional boundaries is challenging. As the Chief Justice observed in Obergefell, anticipating the very case now before us, “[h]ard questions arise when people of faith exercise religion in ways that may be seen to conflict with the new right to same-sex marriage—when, for example, . . . a religious adoption agency declines to place children with same-sex married couples.”  

The Supreme Court has recognized that the free exercise of religion involves not only religious belief and expression, but also the right to engage in—and refrain from—physical acts as people of faith live out their beliefs. The ERLC will continue to track this case as it moves through the legal process.

Why should Christians care?

Faith-based adoption providers should be able to operate according to their sincerely held beliefs and not be punished for their convictions. New Hope’s faith is central to its operations, as caring for vulnerable children is central to the Christian faith. Punishing faith-based organizations who work diligently to place children with loving, healthy families runs contrary to the government’s interest in protecting children in need.

In commenting on this case, Russell Moore noted how it should be no surprise that faith-based agencies are at the forefront of caring for children because “Jesus commands us to receive the little children, to rescue the perishing, and to care for the dying.” Moore continued:

“The state shouldn’t stand in the way of those seeking to care for children in need. Far too many children are waiting, right now, either for adoption or foster families. In recent years, those caring for the most vulnerable children have been subjected to legal harassment, all because they will not give up the very religious motivations which drive them to serve in the first place. This is contrary to the free society guaranteed in the First Amendment, and has real human costs paid by those who can least afford such a burden: children in need of a home. The Second Circuit ruling is right and just. Those who disagree with the beliefs of those caring for children have every freedom in the world to build institutions to help children and families. What they shouldn’t have the freedom to do is to drive out those who are there now, standing and serving, because of their beliefs.”

ERLC intern Sloan Collier contributed to this article.

Article 12: The Future of AI

We affirm that AI will continue to be developed in ways that we cannot currently imagine or understand, including AI that will far surpass many human abilities. God alone has the power to create life, and no future advancements in AI will usurp Him as the Creator of life. The church has a unique role in proclaiming human dignity for all and calling for the humane use of AI in all aspects of society.

We deny that AI will make us more or less human, or that AI will ever obtain a coequal level of worth, dignity, or value to image-bearers. Future advancements in AI will not ultimately fulfill our longings for a perfect world. While we are not able to comprehend or know the future, we do not fear what is to come because we know that God is omniscient and that nothing we create will be able to thwart His redemptive plan for creation or to supplant humanity as His image-bearers.

Genesis 1; Isaiah 42:8; Romans 1:20-21; 5:2; Ephesians 1:4-6; 2 Timothy 1:7-9; Revelation 5:9-10

Article 11: Public Policy

We affirm that the fundamental purposes of government are to protect human beings from harm, punish those who do evil, uphold civil liberties, and to commend those who do good. The public has a role in shaping and crafting policies concerning the use of AI in society, and these decisions should not be left to those who develop these technologies or to governments to set norms.

We deny that AI should be used by governments, corporations, or any entity to infringe upon God-given human rights. AI, even in a highly advanced state, should never be delegated the governing authority that has been granted by an all-sovereign God to human beings alone. 

Romans 13:1-7; Acts 10:35; 1 Peter 2:13-14

Article 10: War

We affirm that the use of AI in warfare should be governed by love of neighbor and the principles of just war. The use of AI may mitigate the loss of human life, provide greater protection of non-combatants, and inform better policymaking. Any lethal action conducted or substantially enabled by AI must employ 5 human oversight or review. All defense-related AI applications, such as underlying data and decision-making processes, must be subject to continual review by legitimate authorities. When these systems are deployed, human agents bear full moral responsibility for any actions taken by the system.

We deny that human agency or moral culpability in war can be delegated to AI. No nation or group has the right to use AI to carry out genocide, terrorism, torture, or other war crimes.

Genesis 4:10; Isaiah 1:16-17; Psalm 37:28; Matthew 5:44; 22:37-39; Romans 13:4

Article 9: Security

We affirm that AI has legitimate applications in policing, intelligence, surveillance, investigation, and other uses supporting the government’s responsibility to respect human rights, to protect and preserve human life, and to pursue justice in a flourishing society.

We deny that AI should be employed for safety and security applications in ways that seek to dehumanize, depersonalize, or harm our fellow human beings. We condemn the use of AI to suppress free expression or other basic human rights granted by God to all human beings.

Romans 13:1-7; 1 Peter 2:13-14

Article 8: Data & Privacy

We affirm that privacy and personal property are intertwined individual rights and choices that should not be violated by governments, corporations, nation-states, and other groups, even in the pursuit of the common good. While God knows all things, it is neither wise nor obligatory to have every detail of one’s life open to society.

We deny the manipulative and coercive uses of data and AI in ways that are inconsistent with the love of God and love of neighbor. Data collection practices should conform to ethical guidelines that uphold the dignity of all people. We further deny that consent, even informed consent, although requisite, is the only necessary ethical standard for the collection, manipulation, or exploitation of personal data—individually or in the aggregate. AI should not be employed in ways that distort truth through the use of generative applications. Data should not be mishandled, misused, or abused for sinful purposes to reinforce bias, strengthen the powerful, or demean the weak.

Exodus 20:15, Psalm 147:5; Isaiah 40:13-14; Matthew 10:16 Galatians 6:2; Hebrews 4:12-13; 1 John 1:7 

Article 7: Work

We affirm that work is part of God’s plan for human beings participating in the cultivation and stewardship of creation. The divine pattern is one of labor and rest in healthy proportion to each other. Our view of work should not be confined to commercial activity; it must also include the many ways that human beings serve each other through their efforts. AI can be used in ways that aid our work or allow us to make fuller use of our gifts. The church has a Spirit-empowered responsibility to help care for those who lose jobs and to encourage individuals, communities, employers, and governments to find ways to invest in the development of human beings and continue making vocational contributions to our lives together.

We deny that human worth and dignity is reducible to an individual’s economic contributions to society alone. Humanity should not use AI and other technological innovations as a reason to move toward lives of pure leisure even if greater social wealth creates such possibilities.

Genesis 1:27; 2:5; 2:15; Isaiah 65:21-24; Romans 12:6-8; Ephesians 4:11-16

Article 6: Sexuality

We affirm the goodness of God’s design for human sexuality which prescribes the sexual union to be an exclusive relationship between a man and a woman in the lifelong covenant of marriage.

We deny that the pursuit of sexual pleasure is a justification for the development or use of AI, and we condemn the objectification of humans that results from employing AI for sexual purposes. AI should not intrude upon or substitute for the biblical expression of sexuality between a husband and wife according to God’s design for human marriage.

Genesis 1:26-29; 2:18-25; Matthew 5:27-30; 1 Thess 4:3-4

Article 5: Bias

We affirm that, as a tool created by humans, AI will be inherently subject to bias and that these biases must be accounted for, minimized, or removed through continual human oversight and discretion. AI should be designed and used in such ways that treat all human beings as having equal worth and dignity. AI should be utilized as a tool to identify and eliminate bias inherent in human decision-making.

We deny that AI should be designed or used in ways that violate the fundamental principle of human dignity for all people. Neither should AI be used in ways that reinforce or further any ideology or agenda, seeking to subjugate human autonomy under the power of the state.

Micah 6:8; John 13:34; Galatians 3:28-29; 5:13-14; Philippians 2:3-4; Romans 12:10

Article 4: Medicine

We affirm that AI-related advances in medical technologies are expressions of God’s common grace through and for people created in His image and that these advances will increase our capacity to provide enhanced medical diagnostics and therapeutic interventions as we seek to care for all people. These advances should be guided by basic principles of medical ethics, including beneficence, non-maleficence, autonomy, and justice, which are all consistent with the biblical principle of loving our neighbor.

We deny that death and disease—effects of the Fall—can ultimately be eradicated apart from Jesus Christ. Utilitarian applications regarding healthcare distribution should not override the dignity of human life. Fur- 3 thermore, we reject the materialist and consequentialist worldview that understands medical applications of AI as a means of improving, changing, or completing human beings.

Matthew 5:45; John 11:25-26; 1 Corinthians 15:55-57; Galatians 6:2; Philippians 2:4

Article 3: Relationship of AI & Humanity

We affirm the use of AI to inform and aid human reasoning and moral decision-making because it is a tool that excels at processing data and making determinations, which often mimics or exceeds human ability. While AI excels in data-based computation, technology is incapable of possessing the capacity for moral agency or responsibility.

We deny that humans can or should cede our moral accountability or responsibilities to any form of AI that will ever be created. Only humanity will be judged by God on the basis of our actions and that of the tools we create. While technology can be created with a moral use in view, it is not a moral agent. Humans alone bear the responsibility for moral decision making.

Romans 2:6-8; Galatians 5:19-21; 2 Peter 1:5-8; 1 John 2:1

Article 2: AI as Technology

We affirm that the development of AI is a demonstration of the unique creative abilities of human beings. When AI is employed in accordance with God’s moral will, it is an example of man’s obedience to the divine command to steward creation and to honor Him. We believe in innovation for the glory of God, the sake of human flourishing, and the love of neighbor. While we acknowledge the reality of the Fall and its consequences on human nature and human innovation, technology can be used in society to uphold human dignity. As a part of our God-given creative nature, human beings should develop and harness technology in ways that lead to greater flourishing and the alleviation of human suffering.

We deny that the use of AI is morally neutral. It is not worthy of man’s hope, worship, or love. Since the Lord Jesus alone can atone for sin and reconcile humanity to its Creator, technology such as AI cannot fulfill humanity’s ultimate needs. We further deny the goodness and benefit of any application of AI that devalues or degrades the dignity and worth of another human being. 

Genesis 2:25; Exodus 20:3; 31:1-11; Proverbs 16:4; Matthew 22:37-40; Romans 3:23

Article 1: Image of God

We affirm that God created each human being in His image with intrinsic and equal worth, dignity, and moral agency, distinct from all creation, and that humanity’s creativity is intended to reflect God’s creative pattern.

We deny that any part of creation, including any form of technology, should ever be used to usurp or subvert the dominion and stewardship which has been entrusted solely to humanity by God; nor should technology be assigned a level of human identity, worth, dignity, or moral agency.

Genesis 1:26-28; 5:1-2; Isaiah 43:6-7; Jeremiah 1:5; John 13:34; Colossians 1:16; 3:10; Ephesians 4:24