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

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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.