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President Trump’s proposed 2020 budget, released March 11, reinforces his intention to let foster care and adoption agencies discriminate against LGBTQ people and others in the name of religion, using taxpayer money. There is legislation pending that could stop these religious exemptions to non-discrimination laws, however. Here’s what you need to know.
The president’s budget includes the line item: “Protect the religious liberty of child welfare providers.” It has no funding amount attached to it, but the Every Child Deserves a Family campaign, which works to end discrimination in child services, said in a statement that while such a line in a budget proposal is not statutorily binding, “the wording sends a dangerous signal to child welfare agencies that they can discriminate based on a religious litmus test.”
Additionally, the Department of Health Human Services budget in brief that came out at the same time reiterates the role of HHS’ new Conscience and Religious Freedom Division “to ensure protection of the conscience and religious freedom rights of individuals and entities working in health care and human services.”
President Trump had already personally signaled his encouragement of such discrimination. At the National Prayer Breakfast on Feb. 7, he said, “My administration is working to ensure that faith-based adoption agencies are able to help vulnerable children find their forever families while following their deeply held beliefs.”
Understand what’s behind that: The HHS this past January granted South Carolina a waiver from federal nondiscrimination policy so that federally funded adoption and foster care agencies in the state may discriminate based on a person’s religion, LGBTQ identity or other factors that do not harmonize with the religious beliefs that the agency espouses.
The waiver came after Miracle Hill Ministries, a Protestant foster care agency, turned away a Jewish woman from serving as a mentor to foster youth because she did not share Miracle Hill’s beliefs. The state’s Department of Children and Family Services told the agency it must comply with federal nondiscrimination policy or lose its contract, but Republican Gov. Henry McMaster intervened and requested a waiver from HHS, which was granted.
After the waiver was requested, South Carolina also passed a bill to become one of 10 states — Alabama, Kansas, Michigan, Mississippi, North Dakota, Oklahoma, South Carolina, South Dakota, Texas and Virginia — whose laws now allow religious exemptions in child services. (Similar legislation has been introduced in Arkansas and Tennessee.) All but Alabama allow them to do so even if they receive taxpayer money.
Supporters of religious exemptions have argued that laws which cut public funds for agencies that discriminate have forced religiously based child service agencies to close and are thus reducing the number of homes for children. Yes, some agencies have chosen to close rather than place children with LGBTQ parents. But as Emily Hecht-McGowan, former chief policy officer of Family Equality Council, explained to me in 2017, this has made “no discernible impact” on children finding homes. These agencies did not make that many public placements to begin with, and the ones that closed were able to transfer all their cases to other agencies.
Last fall, LGBTQ and child welfare advocates defeated federal legislation that would have permitted religious exemptions in child services across the nation and momentum is building to further oppose religious exemption laws. In the past two months, 43 U.S. senators and 95 U.S. representatives have signed letters to HHS Secretary Alex Azar, strongly condemning the South Carolina waiver. And at a March 14 Senate Finance Committee hearing on the president’s budget, Sen. Ron Wyden (D-OR), the ranking member, said in a statement that religious exemptions in foster care harm children by limiting the number of homes available and raise “alarming questions” about what would happen if children end up in settings “hostile to their faiths” or LGBTQ identities.
Several pieces of legislation could help avoid these scenarios. The Do No Harm Act, introduced in both houses February 28, would ensure that the Religious Freedom Restoration Act of 1993, meant to prevent the government from “substantially burden[ing] a person’s exercise of religion,” cannot be used to allow discrimination.
Additionally, the Every Child Deserves a Family Act, introduced with bipartisan support in the past five Congresses, is expected to be introduced again this spring. The bill would withhold federal child welfare funds from states that discriminate against prospective parents or youth in care on the basis of sexual orientation or gender identity (and for prospective parents, marital status), and allow redress in federal courts.
Most prominently, the Equality Act, introduced in both houses (and with much fanfare in LGBTQ media) two days after the president’s budget, is meant to “prohibit discrimination on the basis of sex, gender identity and sexual orientation” in a wide variety of programs and services. It specifically notes that “Barring discrimination in foster care and adoption will increase the number of homes available to foster children waiting for foster and adoptive families” and “will ensure improved treatment and outcomes for LGBT foster children.”
Contact your own members of Congress and ask them to cosponsor these bills if they haven’t already (or thank them for doing so). Follow the Every Child Deserves a Family campaign (everychilddeservesafamily.com) on social media for updates on federal and state happenings. With over 440,000 children in foster care, over 120,000 waiting to be adopted, and nearly 20,000 aging out of foster care each year without finding a permanent home, according to the latest federal data, preventing bias in child services should be a critical national imperative.
TAGLINE Dana Rudolph is the founder and publisher of Mombian (mombian.com), a GLAAD Media Award-winning blog and resource directory for LGBTQ parents.