By Gillian Friedman –
LANSING, Mich. — Shamber Flore was 5 years old, home alone in the bleak Michigan winter.
She rummaged through the kitchen cabinets in search of food, finding nothing but crackers and mustard. She had no idea where her mother was.
On days she wasn’t left alone, she would go with her mom to long meetings with strange men (Shamber would only realize years later her mom worked as a prostitute). She would sit outside the door, confused and anxious, and wait for her mom to come back.
Then, on a warm summer day in 2003, there was a knock on the door. The woman said she was from Child Protective Services. She took Shamber into state custody.
For more than a year, the 5-year-old bounced from one foster home to another, fearful that she would never see her brother and sister again.
In 2005, when Shamber was 7, St. Vincent Catholic Charities, an adoption agency in Lansing, Michigan, reunited Shamber with her siblings, who were living with the Tamal and Jerry Flore family in a big rambling barn of a house with a pond in the front yard. Eventually, the Flore family would adopt all three children.
“My adoption agency saved me,” says Shamber. “They … gave me the chance to know what it feels like to be loved and cherished by my parents.”
Shamber, now a self-confident 20-year-old high school graduate, finds herself at the center of a lawsuit that could have ramifications for adoption agencies and religious organizations around the country and the children they serve.
The ACLU sued the state of Michigan on Sept. 20, 2017, arguing that by contracting with agencies like St. Vincent, which refuse to serve same-sex couples, the state is violating the equal protection clause of the U.S. Constitution. St. Vincent, represented by the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty, argues that serving same-sex couples would compromise its religious convictions.
The arguments reflect a growing national debate over the place of faith in the public square. Conservative Christians and their Republican allies see the issue as one of religious freedom and (in some cases) free speech; Democrats and LGBT rights activists as one of equal treatment under the law.
But in this case, the care for children lies in the balance. As one of the first cases of its kind on this issue, experts say it’s likely to set a legal precedent with national implications in courts and state legislatures across the country.
Michigan contracts with a number of private agencies, some faith-based, to provide adoption and foster care services for the nearly 13,000 children in the state’s system. Some of those state-contracted agencies, including St. Vincent Catholic Charities, refuse to work with same-sex couples on religious grounds.
“If the state cannot turn away same-sex couples or use religious criteria when making decisions related to child welfare, then neither should agencies which receive government funding,” says Jay Kaplan, staff attorney for the LGBT Project of the ACLU of Michigan.
Flore asked to intervene in the case alongside St. Vincent Catholic Charities, both of whom are represented by the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty, a non-profit law firm. They counter the ACLU argument by claiming there are legal exemptions which allow for state money to be used while respecting religious belief and seeking the best interest of children.
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