Religious Freedom Laws Harm Children

Contributed by:
Mary Boo

By spring 2017, at least 10 anti-LGBT child welfare laws have been introduced in states across the US. These bills are designed to allow agencies to discriminate against LGBT parents and youth under the guise of religious freedom. So far, three bills have become law.
South Dakota SB 149, signed in March, allows state-licensed and publicly funded child-placement agencies to turn away qualified South Dakotans based on the agency leaders’ religious beliefs. Agencies can turn away LGBTQ youth and prospective parents, as well as parents who are single, of different faiths, or who don’t fit the agency’s religious values.

Signed into law in early May, Alabama House Bill 24 allows some state-licensed adoption and foster care agencies to reject qualified prospective LGBT foster or adoptive parents based on agency leaders’ religious beliefs. The bill would also enable agencies to decline to serve interfaith couples, single parents, married couples in which one prospective parent has previously been divorced, or other parents to whom the agency has a religious objection. The one upside is that a late amendment prevented agencies that receive state or federal funding from practicing such discrimination.

Texas House Bill 3859, signed on June 15, 2017, will protect agencies, including those that receive public funding, from legal challenges if they discriminate based on agency leaders’ religious beliefs.

These proposed and passed laws on religious freedom are—pure and simple—government permission to discriminate. This is not only morally wrong in its own right, but will also result in real harm to children and youth. Children in foster care are some of the most vulnerable residents of our society. They are in foster care because they have been abused or neglected or because their first families are unable to care for them safely. The government has decided that it can do a better job of taking care of them; as a result, it has a legal and ethical obligation to do the best it can for these children. In child welfare, we talk about making decisions based on the best interests of the child. Discriminating against LGBTQ youth and prospective LGBT and other parents is not in children’s best interest.

Allowing agencies to discriminate based on their leaders’ religious beliefs will cause genuine pain to real children. Right now, there are more than 400,000 children and teens in foster care in the US. More than 100,000 of these children are waiting for an adoptive family to love and care for them now and for a lifetime. All of them deserve the chance to have what most of us have—and what federal law requires whenever possible—a family to care for them.

Imagine the scenarios that would be made possible by laws such as these:

  • A young girl cannot remain with her birth parents. A religiously affiliated agency working under a government contract is assigned to care for her. Staff learn that the girl’s beloved aunt is ready and able to care for her. However, her aunt is a lesbian and the agency won’t work with her. They don’t have another available family, so they choose to place the girl in a group home.
  • A teenage boy is living with a great foster family with whom he has begun to recover from the trauma he experienced in his early life. He realizes he is gay, and comes out at school. When agency staff hear about it, they decide that they will no longer provide care for him because they do not approve of his sexual orientation. His case is moved to another agency and he loses the family that has made him feel safe and loved for the first time in years.
  • A religiously affiliated agency has a government contract to find adoptive families for 15 children in care. The agency chooses not to work with prospective foster or adoptive parents who are of a different faith than the agency’s leaders. As a result of these restrictions, the agency can’t find a family for several children. They age out of foster care with no family and are at much higher risk for unemployment, early parenting, homelessness, and other negative outcomes.

These are not doomsday flights of fancy, but real scenarios that can and will happen if states allow organizations to pick and choose which children, youth, and adults it will serve in foster care and adoption based on their sexual orientation, gender identity, religion, or other such characteristics.

Decades of research has confirmed what those of us in child welfare already knew—that gay and lesbian parents are as good as straight parents at meeting children’s needs. There is also research showing that millions of LGBT individuals and couples are interested in becoming parents, but fear being discriminated against. And of course adults of all different faiths—and no religious belief—are willing and able to provide a loving home for children in foster care and adoption.

Data also shows us that LGBTQ young people are at increased risk of entering foster care, often due to their family’s rejection of them, far too often on religious grounds. These children, youth, and families—along with children, youth, and families of varied faiths—need state and federal governments to do their best for them and to outlaw discrimination rather than defend it.

While in foster care, far too many children have to live in group homes or institutions because there is a shortage of foster families. Every year in the US, more than 20,000 youth leave foster care with no permanent, loving family. Finding qualified, loving families for children who have experienced trauma is the most important work the child welfare system can do. Granting permission to agencies to make this job even harder is short-sighted and unethical. NACAC strongly opposes these bills that use religious freedom to condone discrimination. We encourage all in child welfare to join us in speaking out to protect vulnerable children and ensure they have the family they need.

Categories: Advocacy, LGBTQ

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