AUSTIN, Texas -- Many state-funded Texas adoption agencies routinely deny non-Christian, gay, and unmarried applicants on religious grounds - and now they are backing legislation being considered Tuesday by the state House designed to protect them from potential lawsuits.
The private organizations, which are paid by the state to place foster children with adoptive families, want to continue the practice and are seeking legal protections through Texas' "Freedom to Serve Children Act," which is up for consideration Tuesday in the GOP-controlled House. If it clears the House, the bill heads to the even more conservative Senate and then for an approval signature by Gov. Greg Abbott, who has not commented on the bill.
The bill would be the nation's second allowing state-funded adoption agencies to reject families on religious grounds. South Dakota passed similar legislation in March but it's too soon to measure its practical effects. While the Texas proposal may not pass constitutional muster, that hasn't stopped the state's lawmakers before, who have recently approved a voter ID law and abortion restrictions that were overturned in court.
Randy Daniels, vice-president of Child and Family Services for the Dallas-based Christian child welfare organization Buckner International, said religious agencies are terrified of lawsuits for turning away parents.
"We want to make sure we can practice within the framework of our sincerely held religious beliefs," said Daniels.
Buckner only accepts Christian heterosexual couples who have been married for at least four years, in addition to some single individuals - which is more liberal than many other faith-based groups, which refuse single parents, said Daniels.
"These are our requirements, and we're clear, this is just who we are," said Daniels. "We want to make sure that groups like Buckner continue to have a place at the table because we bring solutions."
The state's child welfare system is overburdened with about 3,800 children currently up for adoption. Private firms receive state funding to handle the "vast majority" of adoptions, said Patrick Crimmins, a Department of Family and Protective Services spokesman.
Republican sponsors of Texas' bill say it is designed to retain providers by shielding them from possible court fights.
"We want to make reasonable accommodations so everyone can participate in the system," said state Rep. James Frank of Wichita Falls. "Everyone is welcome. But you don't have to think alike to participate."
Megan Lestino, vice-president of public policy for the National Adoption Council, said she knows of faith-based adoption agencies denying LGBT and other prospective parents around the country - which upsets families but does not violate the law unless the state fails to present other options.
"Equal protection requires that there's another option for every family," said Lestino. "And there typically is some option for every family."
Four states have passed legislation protecting private adoption agencies only, which Cooper said was seen by some to "codify" existing practices and fall within legal limits. South Dakota, and now Texas, seek to go further.
Frank said his bill directs state child services to ensure that other outside adoption providers without religious objections are made available to help would-be adoptive parents who get turned away by any who do raise objections.
But Rebecca Robertson, the American Civil Liberties Union of Texas' legislative and policy director, said the state - whose only faith providers are Christian - is lacking in such options.She would not address the ACLU's plan to fight the law if it passes, but said she is currently focused on "trying to keep a bad bill from passing."
"If organizations are turning people away and those people are unable to be served that's a violation," she said. "I know this bill would make that happen at multiple levels in this state welfare system."
Robertson also said the proposal violates the Constitution since it involves taxpayer dollars.
"When Texans come to the table, the government has to treat all Texans the same," she said. "This is state-sponsored discrimination."
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Texas adoption bill OK's rejection of non-Christian parents