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GOP Senators Want to Give Religious Adoption Agencies 'License to Discriminate'

By Sunnivie Brydum

A new piece of legislation introduced by two Republican U.S. Senators would effectively guarantee that any religiously based child-welfare services can refuse to place children with same-sex couples, without fear of losing federal funding. 

The "Child Welfare Provider Inclusion Act" was introduced Wednesday by Wyoming Sen. Mike Enzi and Pennsylvania Sen. Mike Kelly, both of whom are Republicans. Zack Ford at ThinkProgress keenly notes that while the bill is positioned as an effort to protect faith-based institutions that provide child welfare services from placing children with families that don't meet the organization's religious standards, what it actually does is force the federal government to continue contracting with faith-based groups that flout federal nondiscrimination policies. 

"The bill would force the government to continue to contracting with any organization that provides services to children, regardless of how their religious tenets affect the way they provide those services," explains Ford. "The bill asserts that 'many individual child welfare services providers maintain sincerely held religious beliefs or moral convictions that relate to their work and should not be forced to choose between their livelihood and adherence to those beliefs or convictions.' It would thus 'prohibit governmental entities from discriminating or taking an adverse action against a child welfare service provider on the basis that the provider declines to provide a child welfare service that conflicts, or under circumstances that conflict, with the sincerely held religious beliefs or moral convictions of the provider.'"

Regardless of a given state's nondiscrimination law, under the draft legislation, any state that denies funding to a religiously based adoption group that won't serve same-sex couples would lose 15 percent of its federal funding to support child welfare programs.

Framing the bill as intended to "ensure that organizations with religious or moral convictions are allowed to continue to provide services for children," the legislation piggybacks on a false choice frequently trotted out by religious charities that oppose marriage equality but provide welfare services, including adoption and foster home placements. Those groups — most notoriously Catholic Charities — claim that if marriage equality or civil unions are enacted in a given state, the organization will be forced to discontinue its work seeking adoptive and foster homes for children because the law would require the group to place children in homes with eligible same-sex couples, which the groups say violates their sincerely held religious beliefs. 

As LGBT legal group Gay and Lesbian Advocates and Defenders notes, in every state where Catholic Charities has claimed to have been "forced out" of the adoption business by LGBT legal relationship recognition, the charity has voluntarily chosen to stop services rather than comply with state law. In each instance, the charity did have the option to continue providing services to children and refusing to serve same-sex couples hoping to adopt children, but the organization would lose its state funding as a result. 

The federal legislation doesn't mention the words "same-sex" anywhere in its text, but like similar efforts to enshrine a so-called license to discriminate into state law in Arizona, Mississippi, and other states, the intent of the bill is clear: religiously affiliated child welfare groups that contract with the federal government are seeking a special exemption to existing law that allows them to continue discriminating against same-sex couples, while still receiving federal funding. 

While Enzi and Kelly's statements in introducing the bill don't directly connect the legislation with the recent executive orders regarding employment nondiscrimination against LGBT people signed by President Obama earlier this month, the timing of this bill's introduction is curious, given that the federal government just stepped up its refusal to contract with organizations that discriminate against LGBT people in their employment practices.

The Human Rights Campaign denounced the legislation in an email sent to supporters Thuesday, saying if passed, the bill's consequences would be "immediate, random, broad, and disastrous." 

"It’s increasingly clear that, post-Hobby Lobby, some in positions of power believe that religious freedom should only belong to a few," said Ellen Kahn, director of the HRC Foundation's Children, Youth, and Families Program in a statement. "If this bill passes, an Evangelical straight couple, a single father, or a committed and loving gay and lesbian couple could find their path to adoption blocked for no reasonable reason other than naked discrimination. Taxpayer funds should not be used to discriminate, and too many children need loving families right now for our elected officials to be playing these kinds dangerous political games. This bill has nothing to do with faith, and it must be condemned."

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