Tenn. Senate Passes Bill Protecting Faith-Based Foster, Adoption Agencies’ Free Exercise of Religion

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Photo Credit: Theresa Howes

NASHVILLE, Tenn. — Senators in Tennessee have passed a bill allowing faith-based foster and adoption agencies to operate in  accordance with their religious convictions and prohibiting the State from denying licenses to such organizations because of their placement policies.

With a vote of 20-6, the measure was the first bill passed by the state Senate in the new year. It will now make its way to the desk of Gov. Bill Lee, who will likely sign it into law.

“To the extent allowed by federal law, no private licensed child-placing agency shall be required to perform, assist, counsel, recommend, consent to, refer, or participate in any placement of a child for foster care or adoption when the proposed placement would violate the agency’s written religious or moral convictions or policies,” Senate Bill 1304 reads in part.

It also prohibits the Department of Children’s Services from denying a placement agency a license or license renewal “because of the agency’s objection to performing, assisting, counseling, recommending, consenting to, referring, or participating in a placement that violates the agency’s written religious or moral convictions or policies.”

Read the bill in full here.

As previously reported, the legislation passed the House of Representatives in April with a vote of 67-22. Last year, sponsor Rep. Tim Rudd, R-Murfreesboro, outlined during House debate that in other states, faith-based organizations have “been sued to the point of driving them out of business” and the bill is “just codifying what the Supreme Court has said.”

This year, five Republicans in the Senate abstained from voting on the measure, including Lt. Gov. Randy McNally, R-Oak Ridge, who opined that the legislation is unnecessary and could adversely affect the existing Tennessee Freedom of Religion Act.

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“I would argue that it’s best to leave alone what we have, because the protections already exist,” he said, according to the Chattanooga Times Free Press. 

The sole Republican who voted against the measure was Sen. Steve Dickerson, R-Nashville, who remarked on the floor that the legislation would harm the state economically, as those who oppose the measure who decline to do business in Tennessee. He called the the bill “bad public policy.”

The Tennessee Equality Project, a homosexual and transgender advocacy group, has also been vocally opposed to SB 1304, which they labeled as the “adoption discrimination bill.”

“[Faith-based agencies] should not be able to use my taxpayer dollars to pick which prospective parents can use their services based on a religious test. It’s not right to give public funds to agencies that are in the business of determining who has the right religion,” it wrote in a petition.

As previously reported, the issue of whether faith-based foster and adoption agencies may operate in accordance to their religious convictions has been a significant topic of discussion in recent years.

In April, the Third Circuit Court of Appeals denied an injunction to a Philadelphia foster agency whose contract with the City was cancelled over a non-discrimination ordinance that prohibits agencies from turning away homosexuals. Without a contract, Catholic Social Services can’t place any children in government custody into a loving home.

The following month, a federal judge likewise ruled against a foster and adoption agency in Syracuse, New York, stating that the Office of Children and Family Services (OCFS) did not act with anti-religious bias when it issued an ultimatum that the agency either change its policies in regard to only placing children in homes with both a mother and father or discontinue its foster and adoption program.

The attorney general of Michigan, who as a lesbian, similarly reached a settlement earlier this year with the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) prohibiting State-contracted foster care and adoption agencies from “turning away or referring to another contracted agency an otherwise potentially qualified LGBTQ individual or same-sex couple.”

However, the Lansing-based St. Vincent Catholic Charities soon filed suit, and in September, U.S. District Judge Robert Jonker blocked the policy from going into effect, stating that Attorney General Dana Nessel had engaged in “a targeted attack on a sincerely held religious belief.”

In November, the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) proposed a rule on the federal level that would provide protections for faith-based foster and adoption agencies that otherwise might lose grant funds for operating in accordance with their religious convictions — namely in declining to place children in households where there is not both a mother and father.

“Some federal grantees have stated that they will require their sub-grantees to comply with the non-statutory requirements [enacted under the Obama administration]… even if it means some subgrantees with religious objections will leave the program(s) and cease providing services rather than comply,” the Office of the Assistant Secretary for Financial Resources lamented in a notice of proposed rule-making.

“The Department believes that such an outcome would likely reduce the effectiveness of programs funded by federal grants by reducing the number of entities available to provide services under these programs,” it outlined.

The Chattanooga Times Free Press reports that Tennessee Sen. Mike Bill, R-Riceville, noted this week that those who identify as homosexual have other options besides going to faith-based organizations and attempting to have them compromise their convictions.

There is “nothing in the bill to force parents to go to a faith-based agency,” he said.


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