Adoption bills hearing causes acrimony

By | 2006-06-15T09:00:00-04:00 June 15th, 2006|News|

LANSING – A pair of controversial bills to amend the state adoption code received an acrimonious hearing before the House Family and Children Services Committee last week. The hearing, originally slated to begin at 2 p.m., did not get underway until 3:30 p.m. when Rep. John Stahl (R-North Branch), chair of the committee, gaveled the hearing into session.
The two bills, HB 5908 and 5909, would revamp the state adoption code to allow adoption agencies to approve or deny adoptions based on their own “written religious or moral convictions or policies,” and continue to receive funding from the State of Michigan; regardless of whether those convictions or policies violated Michigan’s own rules and policies.
The Committee quickly dispensed with approval of minutes, and moved onto a consideration of a substitute bill for HB 5909. The substitute bill would have expanded the bill to make sure that organizations would be eligible for all state funding, not just protect their right to a license. The committee shot down the substitute bill.
A red-faced, scowling Stahl called a break for 15 minutes. When the committee returned Stahl had rounded up an additional Republican. Vice Chair of the Committee, Kent County Republican Tom Pearce, called for a reconsideration of the substitute bill, and it was accepted.
In a move some waiting to testify said was odd, Rep. Stahl joined Romy Crawford of Rep. Scott Hummel’s (R-DeWitt) office to testify before the committee about the importance of the bills.
“During this time,” Stahl said, “we need to protect everyone’s First Amendment Rights.”
Crawford continued, “We believe pre-emptive action is necessary.” She went on to discuss a situation in Massachusetts where the Boston Catholic Charities has decided to close its doors rather than be forced, as state law requires, to adopt children to gay or lesbian couples.
Genesee County Democrat Rep. Brenda Clack grilled Stahl on the basis for the bill, culminating her questioning with the pointed question, “Why is it important at this time? Is there any indication of supervisory action to believe this is important?”
Stahl let out a large sigh then spoke. “There have been licenses affected in the state.”
Rep. Barb Vander Veen, a Republican from Ottawa County, asked Stahl, “I would like to know if you had contact with agencies who have had problems, who are they?”
“We’ll hear a little bit more during the hearing,” said Crawford. “They (agencies) live and breathe by their licensure and many are unlikely to speak out.”
Stahl and Crawford soon completed their testimony and Stahl returned to chairing the hearing. Chris Root from the Lansing Diocese testified that their Catholic Charities had not had any issues that would make the legislation necessary.
Gordon Miller, a representative of Bishop Wendell Gibbs of the Episcopal Church, testified next. While reading from a prepared statement, Miller was laying out a theological basis for opposition to the bills when Stahl cut him off.
“I don’t want you to get into faith differences,” Stahl said, “Stick to the legislation.”
Ron Hicks, director of the Department of Family and Children, testified next. His department’s opposition to the bills was based on the ability of various agencies to have their own stricter policies than those of the State of Michigan. “We do what is in the best interest of the child. We will not support language that allows a placing agency to place on their own beliefs.”
Stahl immediately jumped on Hicks, reading from Article 8, Section 1 of the Michigan Constitution. “You’re telling me you don’t want to make a decision on morality. That’s what this legislation is meant for.”
“What I indicated is that I oppose enacting language that would authorize policies more restrictive than those of the state of Michigan,” Hicks shot back.
Stahl then claimed that there were numerous organizations having their licenses threatened. To which Rep. Clack chimed in, “The proof that there is a problem is not broad enough.”
“We’ll wait for more testimony,” Stahl replied.
Rep. Vander Veen asked for records to “substantiate” a problem.
“I’m getting calls at my office. I want to be preventative, pre-emptive,” Stahl shot back to Vander Veen’s request. “Why do we have to wait for all hell to break loose?”
Sean Kosofsky, director of policy for Triangle Foundation spoke next. “No one has the First Amendment Right to discriminate,” he said. He called the legislation “wrong – morally wrong.”
Stahl cut Kosofsky off, and began grilling him. A heated exchanged followed, culminating with Stahl declaring, “I am a legislator. I represent 90,000 people,” and shutting off the witness microphone.
Kosofsky continued undeterred. “I will finish my statement. You allowed everyone else to do so.” Then he finished reading his testimony without a microphone.
Next to testify was Jay Kaplan, staff attorney for the ACLU of Michigan. Kaplan testified that if passed the law would be “carte blanche” to discriminate. He then said the impact of the legislation would have “immoral” effects.
Stahl jumped in and demanded Kaplan define immorality, at one point pulling out a Bible.
“I’m not talking about scripture I am talking about the laws…” Kaplan said, and walked away. Stahl demanded copies of Kaplan’s statement, which Kaplan had already provided to the Committee Clerk. When Stahl had a copy he said, “Thanks for your testimony, Jan.”
Last to testify was Paul Long of the Michigan Catholic Conference, the lobbying arm of Michigan’s Catholics. Long testified that agencies in Michigan were being forced to change their policies to conform to Michigan policies. He presented the Committee with what he claimed was documentation, however, he removed the names of the agency from the report, making verification of the letter and authenticity difficult.
Again Rep. Clack indicated that she did not feel there was enough information to support allegations that there was a problem with the system as it was. She then asked Rep. Stahl, who on several occasions claimed to have proof of discriminatory actions by the state against religious adoption agencies, if he could present the proof in a closed session.
“I am concerned about the agencies,” Stahl said. “They are whistle blowing. That’s why I’m worried about providing you that information. It (a closed session) is a proper request. If I deem it is necessary (to go into closed session), but I don’t think it is. There are examples out there.”
The committee hearing ended without a vote on the bills.
Stahl’s behavior during the meeting was attacked following the meeting. “We are incredibly disappointed that Representative Stahl seems to not be swayed by the facts. His ideological drive to limit adoptions based on religious bias will harm children. It is both rude and unprofessional and undemocratic to treat dissenting views the way he did in committee,” said Kosofsky.
“I was pretty outraged by the hearing,” said Kaplan. “It was not the greatest example of democracy at work.”
Rep. Stahl was handed a Freedom of Information Act Request following the close of the meeting, requesting he provide the documentation of his claims of numerous phone calls to his office, as well as other written documents which support the claims that organizations in the state of Michigan have been discriminated against by State policy. On Tuesday, this reporter received notice that the FOIA request was denied on the grounds that the House was not subject to the Freedom of Information Act.

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