Religious Exemptions Hurting Children

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A federal law that was introduced in the Spring would protect child welfare agencies to refuse services based on their religious beliefs.

The Child Welfare Provider Inclusion Act of 2017, introduced in April by Rep. Mike Kelly, R-Penn., would allow agencies, such as adoption and foster childcare charities, to turn away people because they don’t meet their religious standards. Furthermore, 15 percent of federal funding would be removed from agencies that refuse to comply.

“We are in a political climate that is emboldening legislators to introduce more broad and deep religious exemptions,” said Heron Greenesmith, senior policy analyst at Movement Advancement Project. “There were several states who had these types of laws before 2017, but certainly the political climate right now is a uniquely favorable one for religious exemptions.

MAP, a think tank based out of Boulder, Colorado, has been using hard math and statistics to show the negatives of allowing these religious exemptions. Should a charity decide to refuse federal funding, that would mean up to hundreds of millions of dollars taken away from finding children families.

Currently, 20 states have religious exemption laws in place and seven have specific legislation allowing adoption agencies and foster services to refuse service to LGBT families and couples: Alabama, Michigan, Mississippi, North Carolina, North Dakota, South Dakota, and Texas. This year alone three states passed the laws (South Dakota in March and Alabama and Texas in May). Oklahoma has a similar law moving through its state legislature.

Although Florida is not a member of this list, it’s come dangerously close.

In 2015, groups were able to dismantle a Florida House bill that would have allowed adoption agencies to use “religious or moral convictions” to deny child placement. However, the following year the House went even broader and attempted to pass another bill that would allow healthcare providers, businesses, child adoption agencies, and religious institutions to deny services to people based on their religious beliefs. Again, the bill died.

“The reality is that same-sex couples are eager to provide safe spaces for children in the child welfare system and these couples are of course more than capable of providing safe, loving and protective homes for these kids,” said Hannah Willard, the senior policy director at Equality Florida.

But even worse is deciding to remove protections. Also in 2016, Equality Florida learned that the Department of Children and Families was planning to update its rules surrounding group and youth homes to include protections for LGBTQ children and families. Partnering with child welfare advocates and Lambda Legal, the protections were put back in.

“It was almost more dangerous to take the language out than to never have addressed it in the first place,” Willard said. “There’s still a lot of work to be done in Florida to make sure all aspects of the child welfare system are up to date in protecting and safe guarding LGBTQ youth.”

According to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, 428,000 American children live in foster care, and 103,000 are waiting for adoption. Even so, states still pass laws that allow for discrimination — and lose 15 percent of its federal funding. As a part of its study, MAP has shown that when agencies decide to part ways with the state, they’re choosing to put their beliefs before potentially tens or hundreds of millions of dollars in funding — money that can go towards finding children homes.

“There are hundreds of thousands of children in foster care right now. Some are waiting to be reunited with their family, some are waiting for foster homes, some are waiting to be adopted, and one of the biggest concerns right now is the shortage of available homes,” Heron said.

One of those states is Michigan. In the summer of 2015, its governor signed into law a bill that allowed adoption agencies to refuse adoption and foster services to people based on their religious beliefs.

“Sexual orientation laws, along with the redefinition of marriage or the recognition of same-sex civil unions, are undermining the freedom of private foster care and adoption providers to place children only in homes that they consider suitable,” according to a supporting argument by the state.

In September, the American Civil Liberties Union filed a lawsuit against the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services and the Children’s Services Agency to try and undo this.

“Government services must not be provided based on religious standards and taxpayer money must not be used to fund agencies that discriminate based on religion or sexual orientation,” said Leslie Cooper, senior staff attorney at the ACLU LGBT & HIV Project, in a press release from the ACLU.

Coinciding with the lawsuit, MAP debuted the Kids Pay the Price ad campaign, educating the public about laws that are harmful to children. On Fox News Heron of MAP pointed out, “When a state looks at this problem and decides, like the Michigan legislature did, to reduce the number of available homes, it really makes you question whether they have the best interest of children in their hearts.”

Thankfully, some states are moving into the opposite direction and actually creating concrete protections for LGBT and same-sex couples when it comes to fostering and adopting children: California, Rhode Island, New Jersey, and Washington, D.C.

When Illinois legalized civil unions between same-sex couples in 2011, Catholic Charities, which handled the state’s adoptions, did not want to have to comply and sued the state for an exemption. The agency wound up dropping the case, halted services that required compliance with the state, and the state took over adoption cases.

“LGBTQ people are not asking for special rights. We are asking for equal protection,” Willard said. “LGBTQ people are asking to be included in the existing protections in employment, housing, public accommodation, in the child welfare system, in our everyday lives. We’re not asking for anything new. We’re just asking for equality.”


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