A silent, almost secret truce is broken in the state Capitol

The culture wars have stoked debates in the state Capitol for a generation now. But until this week, a silent and nearly secret agreement had been observed by most parties involved, one that could be reduced to this single phrase:

Leave the kids out of it.

House Bill 159, sponsored by state Rep. Bert Reeves, R-Marietta, represents the first major rewrite of Georgia adoption law since 1990. The measure would address new fads that have emerged in the field since the Internet was invented.

Things like international adoptions. And guaranteeing maternity leave for teachers who adopt.

There is a specific reason that adoption law in Georgia has been allowed to marinate for 27 years. It showed itself on Monday, when Republicans in the Senate Judiciary Committee tacked on an amendment that would give broad protections to private child placement agencies that refuse to process specific adoptions for religious reasons.

Think same-sex couples. Other beliefs could also trigger these protections, amenders argued. Divorce, for instance. But let’s not pretend.

Almost immediately, Gov. Nathan Deal erupted, warning that the amendment could kill years of behind-the-scenes, pro-bono work by adoption attorneys across the state. “I certainly don’t want that to happen, and I would hope they would reconsider,” Deal said.

In fact, the Senate Judiciary Committee has been asked to rethink its amendment to HB 159. Members are to meet Thursday. Reeves, the bill’s sponsor, opposed the amendment. “I hope the Senate will pass my version of the bill, which stands to benefit thousands of Georgians who are seeking to adopt, and the thousands of children who are currently in our foster care system,” Reeves said Wednesday.

The history of Georgia’s adoption code as a no-go zone has several versions. “What we’ve done is gone around this bubble, and right in the middle is the adoption [law],” said state Sen. Renee Unterman, R-Buford. “We’ve done everything around it.”

Grandparent rights have been enhanced. Unterman sponsored a measure to allow the transfer of guardianship by power of attorney. All to address what she calls “the deconstruction of the family” and a one-third increase in the number of foster children the state is obliged to take care of.

Unterman says reluctance to tackle the whole of Georgia’s adoption law has been a matter of year-to-year logistics, not religious objections to gay parenting. But the senator did recall a conversation she had years ago with Nancy Schaefer, a fellow Republican senator from northeast Georgia. (Schaefer left the chamber in 2008. She died in 2011, murdered by her husband, who then committed suicide, police said.)

Schaefer, she said, became upset with the way state administrators in her Senate district were attempting to cope with a foster care overload. “They started putting kids into same-sex families, and she went ballistic,” Unterman said.

Schaefer tried to enlist her support to block the practice. Unterman refused. “What are you going to do? You’ve got to put those kids somewhere,” she said. “And it’s better to put them with two loving people rather than under the guardianship of the state.”

About that same time, Jeff Graham became executive director of Georgia Equality, the gay rights organization. With the state’s constitutional ban on gay marriage then in place, Graham’s immediate focus was “second parent” adoption – the securing of parental rights for the non-biological partner in a relationship.

“A lot of folks sat me down,” Graham said. They explained that opening up that portion of the Georgia code could do more harm to the LGBT community than good. And so Georgia Equality shifted to a more low-key tactic – identifying gay-friendly judges in Georgia counties whom gay couples could petition individually to complete the adoption process.

But the most authoritative account of the state Capitol’s reluctance to tamper with Georgia adoption law comes from Mary Margaret Oliver, an attorney who has served — with a few gaps — in the Legislature since 1987. She specializes in family law, and has served as a visiting professor at the Barton Child Law and Policy Center at Emory University.

“For 20 years, there has been an awareness that there were some people who wanted to ban LGBT people from being either foster care parents or adoption petitioners,” Oliver said. “There’s been a reluctance to bring adoption legislation out into the political process for fear of that possibility.”

Oliver now serves in the House, but during her stint in the Senate in the late 1990s, she remembers taking one of her adoption bills off the clerk’s desk to keep a colleague from adding an amendment “to ban gay people from adopting.”

Oliver and other backers of HB 159 had assumed that the U.S. Supreme Court decision two years ago, declaring that gays had a constitutional right to marry, was an all-clear signal.

“I’m just glad that the governor and others are stepping in. The work that has gone into this adoption reform code was really based on an assumption that we might be beyond that, politically,” Oliver said.

Sometime Thursday we may find out if her assumption was right. If not, Georgia’s adoption law could be due for another era of benign neglect.

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About the Author

Jim Galloway
Jim Galloway
Jim Galloway is a three-decade veteran of The Atlanta Journal-Constitution who writes the Political Insider blog and column.