Oklahoma state lawmakers last week crippled a bill providing legal protection for religious adoption and foster care agencies that do not place children with same-sex couples. State Rep. Travis Dunlap, a Republican who co-authored the bill, hopes to scrub the unexpected changes before sending the measure to Gov. Mary Fallin, also a Republican. If Dunlap fails, the state likely will lose Christian agencies and churches that have played an integral role in reforming the state’s troubled foster care system.
During an April 12 hearing before the House Judiciary Committee, Rep. Collin Walke, a Democrat, introduced almost 70 amendments in an attempt to delay or derail the bill’s passage to the House for a floor vote. Committee Chairman Rep. Chris Kannady limited Walke to only four amendments. All failed. But an amendment by Rep. Leslie Osborn, a Republican, altered the language of the bill to prohibit any agency receiving state or federal funds from acting on its “religious or moral convictions.” Both the amendment and the final bill passed 13-6. Osborn, after rendering the bill ineffective, voted against it.
SB 1140 passed the Senate and has until April 26 to clear the House. Dunlap plans to offer an amendment undoing Osborn’s language and restoring the bill’s original intent. It should pass the House, Dunlap said, but he doesn’t know whether Fallin will sign it.
Sen. Greg Treat, a Republican, introduced the bill in February, modeling it after Virginia’s protective law. About six states have similar measures, but one faces a legal challenge that threatens them all.
The American Civil Liberties Union filed a lawsuit in September challenging Michigan’s bill, claiming it discriminates against gay and lesbian prospective foster or adoptive parents. An ACLU win could force Michigan to repeal its law, jeopardizing other states’ measures.
Without the new protections, Michigan agencies like Bethany Christian Services and Catholic Charities have said they would consider closing to avoid squandering money intended for children on lawsuits filed by LGBT activists.
Despite the animus toward faith-based agencies that do not serve same-sex clients, retaining all agencies that partner with the Oklahoma Department of Human Services is essential to maintaining effective reforms taking place in the state’s foster and adoption care system, Treat said.
In 2012, Oklahoma privatized its foster and adoption recruitment, training, and placement, moving those efforts from the Department of Human Services to existing private adoption agencies. Since then, new child welfare agencies have opened, and the number of children in the foster care system has dropped from 11,500 in 2015 to 8,600 today, Treat told me.
Churches, in particular, stepped up to work with the state to facilitate reforms.
“Without them we would be in a much bigger world of hurt,” Treat said.
SB 1140 says faith-based agencies cannot be forced to participate in placements that violate their written religious or moral convictions. It also prohibits government entities from denying grants or contracts to those agencies. And their policies based on their religion “shall not form the basis of a civil action.”
Osborn’s amendment added “receiving neither federal nor state funds” after every mention of “agency” to change the bill’s meaning, leaving child welfare ministries at the ACLU’s mercy.