On the floor of the Kansas House chamber in May, Rep. Diana Dierks warned her fellow lawmakers of going down the path of SS agents in 1940s-era Nazi Germany.
The cause for the Republican’s alarm: a bill protecting faith-based adoption agencies that operate according to religious beliefs when finding families for needy children.
The proposed legislation didn’t create any restrictions on gay adoption—a practice legal in all 50 states, including Kansas. Instead, it codified the right of faith-based groups to decline to work with same-sex couples if an organization’s religious beliefs don’t allow it to place children with gay parents.
Dierks had a scathing indictment. As long as agencies don’t receive taxpayer funds, let them do what they want, she claimed, but the state shouldn’t endorse discrimination if government money could be involved in cases such as foster care.
After telling the story of her husband’s childhood in Germany during World War II, and how his grandparents hid Jewish families in their basement, Dierks admonished: “We saw what happened in the 1940s. Let’s not let that happen again.”
The bill narrowly passed the GOP-controlled Legislature May 4, but not without an acerbic battle.
Democratic state Sen. David Haley called the legislation “a vampire that just won’t die.” Rep. Barbara Ballard compared the defenders of religious liberty to Christian slaveholders using the Bible to justify slavery. Republican Sen. Barbara Bollier called agencies’ religious objections to placing children in same-sex homes “sick discrimination.”
Michael Schuttloffel was appalled, but not surprised.
The head of the Kansas Catholic Conference advocated for the bill and said the debate was telling. Though opponents said they weren’t targeting private adoptions (those that don’t involve foster care), Schuttloffel pondered their logic:
“If you think the work of these faith-based agencies is so diabolical and discriminatory that the state should not even allow them to bring forward a family for foster care, it’s not a very long way to go to say the state shouldn’t license them,” he said. “We know where this is going.”
A similar conundrum is unfolding in a handful of states across the country, as adoption protection laws have sprung up and faced challenges. The outcomes have serious implications for some of the nation’s most vulnerable children. With some 400,000 children in the U.S. foster care system—and more than 100,000 of those eligible for adoption—the need for good homes is dire.
Faith-based agencies often provide a significant chunk of those homes through foster care partnerships with various states. (Some agencies receive direct funding from states while others don’t.) And they’re often particularly good at recruiting families to foster children, including many children with special needs.
But if faith-based groups face a choice over whether to violate their consciences by placing foster children with same-sex couples, they could lose the opportunity to find homes for the growing number of children who are hardest to place and who need help the most.
Such worries aren’t unfounded.
In 2006, Catholic Charities of Boston withdrew from facilitating foster care and adoption in Massachusetts after the state legalized gay marriage and the Catholic organization said it couldn’t comply with the state’s nondiscrimination policy.
In 2011, the state of Illinois announced it would end its foster and adoption contract with Catholic Charities over the same issue. A year earlier, the Catholic organization withdrew from the District of Columbia, citing the same dilemma.
Officials at Catholic Charities have said they were willing to refer same-sex couples to other agencies, but couldn’t violate their Biblical beliefs about the nature of marriage as an institution between a man and a woman.
In the wake of the closings—and the nationwide legalization of gay marriage—some states began adopting laws to protect faith-based agencies from facing similar problems: Alabama, Michigan, Mississippi, North Dakota, South Dakota, Texas, and Virginia all passed laws protecting religious conscience for adoption agencies. In May, Kansas and Oklahoma joined the list.
Still, troubles persist. In March, officials in the city of Philadelphia announced they would halt foster care contracts with Catholic Social Services and Bethany Christian Services, saying they discovered the agencies declined to work with same-sex couples. Some 233 children the organizations had matched with families would remain in their homes, but the city said new placements would stop.
The move came one week after city officials put out an “urgent” call for 300 families to step up and provide foster care.
When it comes to access for gay couples, the city of Philadelphia works with at least 24 other foster agencies in the area and held a March recruitment event for LGBTQ parents through the city’s Office of LGBT Affairs.
Such controversies underscore why some states have passed adoption protection laws, but in Michigan those protections face an uncertain future. The state passed a law in 2015 to protect faith-based providers—essentially saying they could continue providing services under their current policies—but the ACLU filed suit last September.
The lawsuit targets state officials, and it says the state government shouldn’t allow any agency to decline working with a same-sex couple, even if it violates the agency’s religious beliefs.
The ACLU has said it isn’t targeting private adoption—just agencies working with the state to provide foster care—but Stephanie Barclay of the Becket legal institute notes that “the kids who desperately need help are in the foster system.”
Other children need help too, including those born to mothers through unplanned pregnancies. But Barclay says those typically aren’t the children “we have a shortage of homes for.”
Even if the ACLU doesn’t directly interfere with private adoptions apart from the foster care system, problems remain:
If a faith-based agency that facilitates both private and foster-related adoptions becomes unsustainable after losing a foster care contract, closing down would reduce options for birth mothers who might privately seek out faith-based agencies to choose a Christian home with a mother and father for their children.
In the Michigan case, plaintiffs Kristy Dumont and Dana Dumont say they called the ACLU after St. Vincent Catholic Charities and Bethany Christian Services told them they don’t place foster children with same-sex couples.
Officials at both agencies say that in such cases they make referrals to other organizations that will work with same-sex couples. Becket—which is advocating for St. Vincent in the case—says the Dumonts’ home is a closer drive to four other adoption agencies serving same-sex couples than it is to St. Vincent.
As the lawsuit rolled out, so did a public relations campaign from the LGBT advocacy group Movement Advancement Project.
A short video purportedly portrays the kinds of people who want to protect faith-based agencies. One actress frowns at the camera, while a voice-over says: “I work with kids who need a home. I believe if a child is gay or transgender, they should be placed with parents who will straighten them out.” The camera cuts to a pamphlet featuring a drill sergeant sneering at a frightened young man, over the words: “BOOTCAMP. We turn ‘gay’ kids straight!”
Another actor glowers at the camera, while a voice-over says: “I believe if you spare the rod, you spoil the child. If a parent doesn’t agree with me, I shouldn’t have to let them adopt.” The unidentified man grips a coiled-up leather belt.
Beyond the gross caricatures, in other states, such laws have been portrayed as seeking to restrict gay adoption, though experts say none of the laws propose limiting access to gay couples. One Associated Press headline read: “Oklahoma, Kansas approve religious veto on LGBT adoptions.”
During a Kansas House hearing, an adoptive mother testified about fostering and adopting seven children with the woman she identified as her wife of 32 years.
After the mother outlined the process the couple followed for successfully fostering and adopting their children, a legislator asked her, “Are you aware that if this bill passes, none of that would change? That you would still be able to do exactly what you have done?”
The mother paused and replied, “It was my understanding that wasn’t the case.”
Beyond the misunderstandings, vulnerable children have found loving homes through seasoned adoption workers at groups like St. Vincent. Becket reports the Michigan agency recruited more families last year than 90 percent of other agencies in the area.