RICHMOND, Va. (CBSDC/AP) — Legislation that would allow private adoption agencies to deny placements that conflict with their religious or moral beliefs, including opposition to homosexuality, sailed through the Virginia House of Delegates without debate Friday.
The House passed the Republican-backed bill 71-28 a day after rejecting several amendments offered by Democrats aimed at softening the measure. Earlier Friday, the Senate Rehabilitation and Social Services Committee endorsed its version of the bill on an 8-7 party-line vote, sending it to the floor next week.
Republican Gov. Bob McDonnell will sign the bill if it reaches his desk, press secretary Jeff Caldwell said. That would likely make Virginia just the second state to explicitly authorize private child-placement agencies to reject adoptions based on their beliefs, people on both sides of the issue said.
Del. Todd Gilbert, R-Woodstock and sponsor of the House bill, says it protects religious freedom. Opponents argue that the government, which contracts with dozens of state-licensed child placement agencies, should not sanction discrimination.
The Virginia Board of Social Services in December adopted regulations allowing discrimination by private agencies based on personal factors, including gender, age, religion, disability, sexual orientation and family status. Federal protections against discrimination based on race, color or national origin were not affected.
Gilbert’s bill and its Senate companion, sponsored by Republican Sen. Jeffrey McWaters of Virginia Beach, would convert those regulations into state law so they could not be changed by a future administration.
The legislation comes as the number of same-sex adoptions has nearly tripled over the past decade according to reports by the US Census Bureau and the Williams Institute.
The conservative Family Foundation lauded Friday’s developments.
“We are grateful that the House of Delegates and the Senate Rehab and Social Services Committee both see the need to protect private child placement agencies that are doing incredible work helping children and families around Virginia,” foundation president Victoria Cobb said in a written statement. “A majority of Virginians recognize that these agencies are critical to providing the best possible outcomes for children.”
Leslie Cooper, an American Civil Liberties Union attorney who deals with gay-rights issues, said the bill conflicts with best practices in the child welfare field.
“It’s a license for child welfare agencies to make decisions based on their own religious beliefs rather than the child’s needs,” she said.
Cooper said an agency could place a child with a stranger instead of a relative, or refuse to place a special-needs child with a doctor or nurse, based solely on the prospective parent’s religion or sexual orientation. “It’s really extreme,” she said.
Chris Freund of the Family Foundation said the legislation was based on a North Dakota law. Freund, Cooper and Michael Cole-Schwartz of the Human Rights Campaign, a gay-rights group, said they were aware of no other state with such a provision.
“While there are many states that don’t prohibit discrimination in adoption based on sexual orientation, most do not explicitly allow discrimination,” Cole-Schwartz said in an email.
Sen. Mark R. Herring, D-Loudoun, said the legislation goes well beyond protecting the religious rights of faith-based agencies. He said any private agency would be able to discriminate based on moral or policy objections.
“What this bill is designed to do is allow any agency to discriminate based on sexual orientation,” Herring said at the committee meeting.
He said agencies that are strictly private can do what they want, but when they contract with the state to provide child placement services and receive state funding for that purpose “they should do it in a nondiscriminatory manner.”
Cobb suggested critics of the bill were overstating its impact.
“This legislation does not change who can adopt children in Virginia,” she said. “The law is already clear on that issue. This simply protects those agencies that do the bulk of the child placement work.”
Virginia has 120 local departments of social services, which administer adoption and foster care services. There are 77 state-licensed private child placement agencies that local departments can contract with to provide those services.
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