OKLAHOMA CITY (RNS) — Oklahoma lawmakers may soon sanction private adoption agencies turning away same-sex couples and other prospective parents who don’t meet their religious criteria, a possibility cheered by the Roman Catholic Church and many evangelical Christians and lambasted as discriminatory by gay rights groups.
It's a conflict playing out across the nation, and both sides say that if the other wins, the number of children placed in loving homes will fall.
Seven states have passed laws — including Alabama, South Dakota and Texas last year — like the one proposed in Oklahoma. A bill with comparable language also has been introduced in Congress, according to The Associated Press. At least two other states — Georgia and Kansas — are debating similar legislation. At the same time, some local governments are withholding support from agencies that won't serve gay prospective parents.
The LGBT community says the Oklahoma measure would result in fewer adoptions as prospective gay parents are turned away by agencies. Conservative Christians say failing to protect the right of adoption agencies to follow their faith would result in fewer adoptions, because those agencies would close before they act against their beliefs.
Those who study the issue say it's hard to tell exactly how such rules governing adoption affect the numbers of children placed in "forever" homes. Still, the assertions from both sides on the matter have been definitive.
Passage of Oklahoma’s Senate Bill 1140 would “result in a disastrous reduction in adoption and foster placements and put 9,000 young people — currently in the system — in jeopardy,” said Troy Stevenson, executive director of Freedom Oklahoma, as the LGBT advocacy organization launched a statewide media campaign this month against the bill.
The numbers may not be there to back him up.
“I don’t know of any empirical evidence on the topic,” said Elizabeth Bartholet, faculty director of the Child Advocacy Program at Harvard Law School in Cambridge, Mass.
“In general, any barriers to adoption are likely to decrease numbers of homes for kids in need,” Bartholet added in an email. “But, of course, it’s possible that religious agencies would shut down rather than put their religious principles aside.”
In this Bible Belt state, Southern Baptist leaders and Roman Catholic bishops are lobbying lawmakers to pass SB1140.
The bill would permit faith-based foster care and adoption providers to refuse any child placement violating the agency’s “written religious or moral convictions or policies.” The measure passed the Senate, 35-9, earlier this month and awaits House consideration. Republican Gov. Mary Fallin generally withholds comment on bills until reading the final version and has not taken a position on whether she would sign SB1140 if it passes, press secretary Michael McNutt said.
“In states like Massachusetts, Illinois, California, and the District of Columbia, faith-based agencies have been forced to close their doors after new regulations were promulgated that would have mandated changes to their adoption criteria in violation of their religious principles,” Oklahoma City Archbishop Paul S. Coakley and Tulsa Bishop David Konderla wrote in a joint letter to legislative leaders.
This week, the city of Philadelphia announced it would cease foster care child intakes with Catholic Social Services of the Archdiocese of Philadelphia because it does not place children with same-sex couples, according to Catholic News Service. Bethany Christian Services also faces complaints from gay rights advocates in Philadelphia.
In a separate letter, Baptist General Convention of Oklahoma leaders Anthony Jordan and Hance Dilbeck Jr. — representing the state’s 650,000 Southern Baptists — said: “We have been alarmed and outraged to learn of threats to the religious liberty and moral convictions of faith-based agencies in other parts of the country. … In Oklahoma, now is the time to ensure equal opportunity and protection for individuals and groups involved in foster care and adoption. Indeed the survival and future of such organizations depends on it.”
Predictions aside about the effects of Oklahoma's or similar bills, LGBT advocates say these measures should fail on another test: because they're discriminatory.
“My family values are the same as other Oklahoma families’ values,” said Kris Williams, a lesbian adoptive mother who spoke at a Freedom Oklahoma news conference this month. “I want my child to feel loved and supported, to have access to education in a healthy community in order to succeed. ... LGBTQ families raise children who are as healthy and happy as children from non-LGBTQ families.”
Supporters of the bill say it won't stop gay people from adopting.
Birth mothers and adoptive parents seek out Catholic Charities of the Archdiocese of Oklahoma City “because of who we are, who they are and what they want for their child,” said Executive Director Patrick J. Raglow.
However, that doesn’t preclude others — including same-sex couples — from choosing different options, he continued.
“With very little effort, we identified not less than five agencies perfectly willing to serve, and currently serving, non-traditional families seeking adoption,” Raglow wrote to lawmakers. “SB1140 does not interfere in any way with their efforts.”
Emilie Kao, director of the Richard and Helen DeVos Center for Religion and Civil Society at the Heritage Foundation in Washington, D.C., makes the same point as she defends the need to protect the religious freedom of faith-based agencies.
“LGBT people have rights to adopt in every state,” said Kao, author of a recent National Review article headlined “The Left’s Assault on Adoption.” “There are no states that ban that. There is no LGBT person in America who can’t find an adoption provider to work with them. Some (agencies) are actively seeking them out.”
Melissa Carter, executive director of the Barton Child Law and Policy Center at Emory Law School in Atlanta, opposes Georgia legislation similar to Oklahoma's, calling it unneeded and “unnecessarily hostile from a values standpoint.”
But Carter said: “I don’t think it’s true that we’ve seen either a notable increase or a notable decrease (in adoptions) as a result of these bills.”
Her review of state-by-state adoption figures shows no “statistically significant” fluctuations, she said. Moreover, she added, the variables driving any year-to-year change “cannot be isolated to conclude causation.”
“As a matter of practice and statistical analysis, there are just far too many variables,” said Carter, who served as Georgia’s child welfare ombudsman under former Gov. Sonny Perdue, a Republican. “This system and its work with vulnerable children and complicated families is just far too complex to suggest that one thing drives a number up or down.”
Stevenson, at a news conference called to oppose the Oklahoma bill, supplied reporters with a statistical analysis that he said showed adoption declines in Michigan (where the American Civil Liberties Union is suing over the state’s child placement policy), North Dakota and Virginia after “discriminatory laws” were passed.
However, the Freedom Oklahoma director did not point out similar decreases in states such as Massachusetts and California, which have not enacted such laws.
The National Council for Adoption, based in Washington, D.C., is nonpartisan and does not take a stance on the bills under consideration in Oklahoma and elsewhere, said Chuck Johnson, the council’s president and CEO.
But Johnson said a common misconception is that the bills propose to change something when, in fact, the faith-based agencies involved always have used religious criteria in deciding whether to serve prospective parents.
“It’s not just the LGBT community — a lot of these agencies only work within their denomination, or they require people to be Christian,” he said. “There are agencies that are Jewish agencies. Years ago, there was at least one Muslim agency.”
The argument on the other side, Johnson noted, is that with roughly 118,000 children waiting to be adopted nationwide, “eliminating a subset of prospective foster or adoptive families doesn’t make sense.” The nation’s opioid epidemic has pushed thousands more children into the child welfare system, he added.