Religious Exemptions for Child Welfare Agencies: A License to Discriminate Against LGBTQ Parents and Children

Over the last decade, the LGBTQ community has made major strides toward equality and overt discrimination has become increasingly frowned upon – and in some cases prohibited by law. But we have unfortunately seen an increase in the abuse of religion, turned into a “license to discriminate” against LGBTQ people in a range of contexts across the country. While this is troubling in any context, Family Equality Council and Bend the Arc Jewish Action are especially concerned by the increase in laws targeting the child welfare system.

In general, so called “religious liberty” or “conscience clause” laws seek to allow everyday citizens, businesses, and government agencies and their employees to deny services to anyone in the name of personally held religious or “moral” beliefs. Some “religious liberty” laws are frighteningly broad – reaching a range of contexts from public accommodations such as restaurants to employment or the issuance of marriage licenses. And, others – an increasing number – are just as frighteningly specific, targeting children in foster care and prospective foster and adoptive parents. All of them twist the true meaning of religious freedom and can do serious harm to children and families.

Why are these laws so dangerous? They generally allow any entity that provides adoption and foster care services, or employees working for such providers, to deny or delay placing children with particular parents based on the personally held “moral” or religious beliefs of that provider. Thus, a child welfare provider and their employees can turn away otherwise qualified foster and adoptive parents, simply because they, or the child being placed, are LGBTQ; or even worse, to place LGBTQ children in foster care with families who would try to “fix” them. We all should be alarmed!

Although, in the last few years, broad “religious liberty” laws have been met with public outcry, including from people of faith who reject such a definition of religious freedom (think Indiana and North Carolina), attempts to legally allow child welfare providers to discriminate based on their religious beliefs have gone largely unnoticed. All the while, the number of children languishing in foster care is steadily increasing and each year more than 20,000 young people “age out” of the system without ever finding a forever family. Yet, we are seeing a steady increase in the number of states enacting laws that allow service providers to turn away would-be families for discriminatory reasons.

Virginia, North Dakota, South Dakota, and Michigan have all passed “conscience clause” laws permitting private foster care and adoption agencies to discriminate against children and potential parents based on the providers’ moral or religious objections, and Texas is dangerously close to following suit. Earlier this month, Alabama passed a similar, but slightly narrower “religious liberty” law that applies to service providers that do not receive government funding. And, during this legislative session, there were unsuccessful attempts to pass “religious liberty” laws targeting the child welfare system in at least four other states.

These laws fly in the face of the underlying principle of the child welfare system – to serve the best interests of the children in care – and they undermine the primary responsibility of the child welfare providers – to ensure that all children in foster care have every opportunity to find loving, stable homes, whether it be a permanent or temporary placement. So-called “religious liberty” laws prioritize the personal beliefs of service providers over the best interests of children, decrease the pool of otherwise qualified prospective parents, and increase wait times for children in care and the number of children who “age out” of the foster care system. These dangerous laws, both in spirit and effect, enshrine unprecedented taxpayer-funded discrimination and twist the true meaning of religious freedom.

To justify these discriminatory laws, their proponents often argue that if faith-based providers are not allowed to discriminate, they will leave the market and there will not be enough child welfare providers. But, to date, experience has shown otherwise. When religiously affiliated organizations have withdrawn from providing these services upon the passage of statewide freedom to marry or civil union laws, they have not simply withdrawn services, leaving children in limbo. Rather, in states like Illinois and Massachusetts and the District of Columbia, providers who are no longer eligible have transferred the cases of the foster children it served to other agencies who were ready and willing to provide these services.

There is no question that religious freedom is an important American value which guarantees us the right to hold any belief we choose and the right to act on our religious beliefs; however, our right to exercise our religion is not without bounds, and it shouldn’t be. Religious freedom does not allow us to harm or discriminate against others. Yet, that is exactly what so-called “religious liberty” laws do. In the face of the “religious liberty” argument it is important to keep in mind that this is not an issue of the religious right versus the secular left—many faith-based organizations across the country are mobilizing against those in the religious right who abuse religion and religious freedom to discriminate. And the majority of the American people are aligned here too: a 2012 Public Religion Research Institute/Religion News Service poll found that 63% of people believe that religiously affiliated adoption agencies that receive federal funding should not be able to refuse to place children with otherwise qualified gay and lesbian couples.

In light of the uptick in child welfare-focused “religious liberty” bills, it is more important than ever that we mobilize and push back against these dangerous bills and continue advocating for non-discrimination laws like the Every Child Deserves a Family Act and the Equality Act which would prohibit government-funded providers (including faith-based organizations that choose to contract with states) from discriminating on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity. Family Equality Council and Bend the Arc Jewish Action are committed to continuing our efforts to protect our most vulnerable children, and we urge you to do the same. The well-being and future of thousands of children in foster care depends on it.