Religious Exemptions Target LGBTQ Families in States Across the Nation

Earlier this month, South Dakota governor Dennis Daugaard signed a bill (SB 149) into law, shrouded as religious liberty, that targets LGBTQ families for discrimination and will have the effect of reducing the number of families available to adopt or foster children in his state, ultimately harming the most vulnerable amongst us.   This new law gives child placing agencies explicit freedom to discriminate against any family that fails to meet their religious test, including LGBTQ families. (You can read our letter to Governor Daugaard, urging his veto, here). There are currently 4 other states – Alabama, Georgia, Oklahoma and Texas – that are considering the same type of legislation: legislation that gives the state’s blessing to child welfare agencies who discriminate against LGBTQ families even when that is clearly contrary to a child’s best interest.  It also allows such agencies to ignore the specific needs of LGBTQ youth in care creating the possibility, for example, of such a child being placed with a family that believes in so-called “reparative therapy”.

Family Equality Council has opposed these bills wherever they have cropped up (see our talking points here).  Despite being introduced in several states over the past couple of years only a tiny handful of states have actually passed this particular discriminatory legislation for a very good reason: it is bad public policy.  But, already this year, one state has passed this harmful discrimination into law and at least one other state is on the brink of doing so.  It is critical that we all step up – now – and make our voices heard.  We cannot allow these bills – these attacks on our families and on our children – go unanswered.

These bills are always shrouded in the cloak of so-called “religious liberty”.  And, to be clear, the free exercise of religion in our country is a deeply-seated value.  We protect that value by enshrining it into the very first Amendment to our Constitution.  But, that freedom isn’t without its limits and does not, and should not, permit exception from generally applicable laws.  Which is, exactly, what these bills do by granting immunity to child welfare agencies from having to follow laws that apply to everyone else (such as non-discrimination laws) as long as it comports with their religious views.   There are many problems with this type of thinking.  Even the ultra conservative justice of the Supreme Court, Antonin Scalia, thought that granting individuals and groups exemptions from neutral, generally applicable laws was wrong, saying “[t]o permit this would be to make the professed doctrines of religious belief superior to the law of the land, and in effect to permit every citizen to become a law unto himself.”  Another problem is that by granting this exemption to generally applicable laws, the legislatures in these states are privileging one religious view over another.

But, for Family Equality Council and for our families, the really pernicious nature of these bills reveals itself in the harm done to the children entrusted to the state through the child welfare system.

In the United States, at any given time, there are approximately 428,000 children living in foster care, more than 100,000 of whom are awaiting adoption.  More than 22,000 of these children leave foster care each year without having found a forever home.  What are the obstacles to these children finding forever homes?  Proponents of these religious exemption bills would have you believe the obstacles lie with not enough agencies to serve the children.  But, nothing could be further from the truth.  Years of research have clearly shown that the number one obstacle to placing these children in loving homes are a lack of families ready to accept them.  Same-sex couples raising children are four times more likely than their different-sex counterparts to be raising an adopted child and are six times more likely than their different sex counterparts to be raising foster children.  States should be working overtime to identify and recruit these families into the foster care and adoption system instead of finding ways to exclude them.

Family Equality Council believes that these laws don’t just run afoul of the U.S. Constitution, but they also run contrary to the basic child welfare principle that the number one consideration should always be what is in the best interests of each individual child. We believe these laws, when challenged, will eventually be struck down.  But, in the meantime, countless children will continue to age out of the system, putting them at increased risk of  incarceration, drug addiction, early pregnancy, sex trafficking, under- and unemployment and worse.  Therefore, it is vital that we stop these bills before they become law.  And, the way to do that is to become and remain engaged in your state’s political affairs. Doing so need involve nothing more than writing a letter, or making a phone call.  And, that simple step could spell the difference for a child, even an LGBTQ child, awaiting a forever home.

If you live in one of the states considering such a bill, please take action now (and keep handy our talking points):

 Alabama – HB 24 – prohibits the state from taking any negative action against a child placement agency if that agency has refused service to any family that fails to meet the agency’s religious test.  It has passed the House and is now before the Senate committee on Health and Human Services.  There were approximately 8,000 children served by the Foster Care system in Alabama in 2015; over 1,000 of whom are awaiting adoption.  Call your senators now and oppose this bill.  (See, also, our letter in opposition, here.)

Georgia – HB 159 (as amended) – allows child welfare agencies to refuse to serve any family that fails to meet the agency’s religious test. There were over 17,000 children served by the Foster Care System in Georgia during 2015; more than 2,500 are awaiting adoption. Call your senators now and oppose this bill.

Oklahoma – HB1507 – allows a child placing agency to invoke “religious or moral convictions” as a cover for allowing it to discriminate against otherwise qualified families in making placement decisions.  It is being considered in the Judiciary Committee. There were nearly 17,000 children served by the Foster Care System in Oklahoma in 2015; nearly 4,300 are awaiting adoption.  Call your representatives now and oppose this bill.

Texas has two bills, HB 2779 and HB 3859 each of which invoke “religious liberty” as a cover for allowing child placement agencies to discriminate against otherwise-qualified families in making placement decisions. There were over 47,000 children served by the Foster Care System in Texas in 2015, over 12,600 of them are awaiting adoption. Let’s stop these bills before they make it to the Senate.  Call your representatives now and oppose these bills.

Let’s prevent these bills from becoming law – for our families, for our children.