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Don’t Forget the Kids!

Legal Eagles

In February 2018, the Georgia Senate passed a bill (SB 375), sponsored by Sen. William Ligon, that gave adoption agencies the right to refuse to work with LGBTQ couples on the basis of religious beliefs. The bill was then set to go to the House. In the meantime, Georgia, like many other states, was being torn in two. You had the supporters’ point of view: “Just because you are a faith-based organization, doesn’t mean you have to check your faith at the door and cannot participate in government programs,” Ligon stated regarding this bill. He argued that the bill would allow adoption organizations affiliated with a religion to participate in government programs without the concern of having to work with LGBTQ couples if it contradicts their religious tenets. “Religious liberty is more than freedom of worship; it includes our ability to make our contribution to the common good of all Americans without having to compromise our faith,” according to a statement from Catholic Charities cited by the Washington Examiner.

But, what about the kids? In Georgia alone, there are approximately 12,000 children in the foster care system, according to CASA Georgia (an agency of court-appointed special advocators). These children desperately need homes. Jeff Graham, Georgia Equality’s executive director stated: “There are no winners with [the bill]. [It] does not help the thousands of young people in our state’s adoption and foster care system. It does not help loving parents who are looking to open their homes to children in need, either through fostering or adoption.” Graham went on to express concerns with the financial impact of this decision. There are major companies who he believed would react negatively to such legislation and take action to remove their business from Georgia. There was very real concern that this bill would impact Amazon’s decision as to where to put its new headquarters. As such, Georgia Gov. Nathan Deal called on state lawmakers to prevent the passing of the bill. His concern was valid. In fact, First Data, an Atlanta-based company employing 24,000 employees worldwide, issued a statement opposing the bill. Many feared other big players would follow. According to the Washington Blade, “prominent entertainment companies that have long been supportive of LGBT rights, including the Walt Disney Company, Netflix, and others that have produced films or conducted business in Georgia were watching with interest Georgia’s [senate bill].” The same concern would be true of other states vying for national and international business opportunities.

While the economic impact is important, again, as an attorney working with children and families, a more important point is that legislation like this doesn’t do a whole lot to take children out of the system and into loving homes. Sen. Ligon argued during a Georgia Senate Judiciary Committee meeting that the passage of the bill would increase adoptions. Sen. Elena Parent pushed back stating that faith-based adoption agencies in Georgia already possess the right to deny placement to LGBTQ couples. “It seems like [the bill is] dealing with problems that do not exist, although it might make people feel better,” Parent said. This begs this question — who are we trying to make feel better? Melissa Carter, executive director for the Barton Child Law and Policy Center at Emory University, stated that adoption agencies with religious association are not, and have not been, denied contracts with Georgia’s foster care system based on those beliefs. So, if the faith-based agencies aren’t being harmed, again, who are we worried about here?

All children in the system could be impacted, but what about the LGBTQ kids? Wouldn’t this legislation have the potential to impact them even more profoundly? Cathryn Oakley, state legislative director and senior counsel at Human Rights Campaign, worries about “what would happen to children who are gay or transgender, such as whether a family who affirmed their identities would be denied adoption.”

In Georgia, SB 375 supporters’ efforts failed on the final day of the 2018 Georgia legislative session and therefore, the purportedly anti-LGBTQ legislation did not pass. But this was not the first effort to have it passed and likely won’t be the last.

And what about other states? Is Georgia alone in seemingly putting the priority on religious freedom? Apparently not — Alabama, South Dakota and Texas have enacted similar laws recently, allowing faith-based agencies to deny applications for religious reasons, which includes if the couple is LGBTQ. Several other states have had similar laws on the books previously. Could North Carolina follow suit? LGBTQ supporters argue that this bill, and those like it, require the use of taxpayer dollars to discriminate against the LGBTQ community. Legal director for Human Rights Campaign, Sarah Warbelow, said in a statement to SELF: “These children could now wait longer to be placed in a safe, loving home at the whim of a state-funded adoption or foster-care agency with a vendetta against LGBTQ couples, mixed-faith couples, or interracial couples — all while being taxpayer-funded.”

In some states, the language is broad and sweeping, and some may argue could be used to reject an inter-faith couple or single parent from adopting. If we are chipping away at the possible parents out there for children in need, how does this benefit these children?

So what should LGBTQ supporters in North Carolina do to better ensure the success of same-sex couple adoptions in light of this level of bigotry, which doesn’t seem to know state lines? Contact your representative or senator to make your position known and what the possible negative outcomes could be from similar legislation. For prospective adopting parents, having a family lawyer involved in their discussions with adoption agencies to advocate for them in case they face this sort of issue is critical.

Jay Kaplan is the staff attorney at the ACLU of Michigan’s Nancy Katz and Margo Dichtemiller LGBT Project. In response to bills like Georgia’s, Kaplan stated: “Allowing agencies to turn away loving, qualified families based on religious criteria creates fewer families for children, reducing their chances of being placed in a suitable family, or any family at all.” And at the end of the day, that sounds like a lot of children being forgotten.

info: Penelope L. Hefner is a Family Law attorney and Principal at Sodoma Law Union, in Monroe, N.C. She is also a trained Parenting Coordinator and has served as a Guardian ad litem. In addition to her practice, Hefner serves as a pro bono volunteer attorney for Safe Alliance’s Legal Representation Project.

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