3/4/19 - Atlanta - State Sen. Marty Harbin sits before the committee before the hearing was postponed. A proposal to strengthen legal protections for religious Georgians stalled Monday when senators delayed a planned public hearing. State Sen. Marty Harbin, a Republican from Tyrone is the sponsor of Senate Bill 221. The bill had been scheduled for a public hearing in the Senate Judiciary Committee on Monday, but the committee ran out of time to discuss the measure before the full Senate met. The legislature was in session for the 26th day of the 2019 General Assembly. Bob Andres / bandres@ajc.com
Photo: Bob Andres/bandres@ajc.com
Photo: Bob Andres/bandres@ajc.com

Fight over same-sex adoptions returns to Georgia Legislature

Georgia lawmakers will again debate whether adoption agencies should be able to deny prospective parents on religious grounds.

A bill filed Tuesday would allow agencies to refuse to place children with same-sex couples or those whose religious beliefs don’t align with the organizations’ mission.

State Sen. Marty Harbin, R-Tyrone, said Senate Bill 368 is intended to “preserve choice” for birth mothers who want to ensure their child grows up in a particular religious background and protect agencies with religious roots.

“This legislation will protect the choice of the mothers for placing their children with agencies that are in line with their culture and values,” Harbin said.

State Rep. Matt Wilson, a Brookhaven Democrat who is gay, said Harbin’s proposal hit on a personal level.

“I’m at the stage of my life where I’m in a committed relationship with my partner and we’re on the road to one day start a family,” he said. “And to do that we would have to adopt because, obviously, we can’t have children. So this is a bill that would directly affect my ability to have a family.”

The bill would allow agencies to refuse to work with couples that violate “certain religious or moral convictions” the agency holds. Harbin said the legislation could apply to same-sex couples, atheists or people of a different faith.

“This would not limit any adoption agency,” Harbin said. “We want to make sure the First Amendment right to free exercise is in place. This preserves and protects agencies with these values … and gives women more options rather than less.”

Advocates for the LGBTQ community say the bill could ultimately harm Georgia’s estimated 12,000 foster children by decreasing the number of families able to adopt.

“This legislation would actually narrow the pool of prospective adoptive parents, and those kids are looking for a safe, supportive home,” said Jeff Graham, the executive director of Equality Georgia. “They don’t care about what the religious practices of the adults are. They don’t care about the sexual orientation or gender identity. They want a home, and that should be the focus of any legislation to do with foster care in Georgia.”

Though members of Senate Republican leadership are co-sponsoring the legislation, it’s unclear whether SB 368 would be approved by the House.

Speaker David Ralston declined to comment on the legislation Wednesday. During a press conference before the legislative session began, he said he didn’t want similar “religious liberty” bills to stymie wider-reaching adoption legislation.

“I will advocate very strongly that not get held up again,” Ralston said in January.

Wilson said he believes there will be bipartisan opposition to the proposal.

“Leadership in the House has been very good about taking a stand to represent all Georgians, including LGBTQ people,” Wilson said. “While we wish we could be even more progressive, we are fortunate to have allies across the aisle to help defend against bills like this one.”

A similar bill from Harbin seeking to strengthen legal protections for religious Georgians failed to advance last year. Civil liberties and business groups have previously opposed so-called religious liberty measures, saying they discriminate against gay Georgians.

Katie Kirkpatrick, the chief policy officer with the Metro Atlanta Chamber, and Georgia Chamber of Commerce Senior Vice President David Raynor issued a joint statement opposing the bill.

“Legislation that sanctions discrimination and limits options for children in need of a permanent home takes us further away from our goal of attracting investments that improve the lives of Georgia families,” Kirkpatrick and Raynor said. “We accomplish that goal by focusing on issues that improve workforce development, education and transportation.”

Kemp previously said he would not try to pre-emptively block legislation that would allow agencies to refuse to work with LGBTQ people, but deal with the issue “when the time comes.”

State lawmakers in 2018 made an initial round of far-reaching changes to the state’s adoption process, prompted by advocates who said the laws were so burdensome that many parents were forced to travel to neighboring states to find children.

That legislation reduced adoption waiting times, legalized the reimbursement of birth mothers for their expenses in private adoptions, banned middlemen who profit from arranging adoptions and simplified out-of-state adoptions.

It passed after a major fight at the Georgia Capitol in 2017 and 2018 over a provision similar to Harbin’s legislation. The bill was approved only after Republican state senators agreed to remove the controversial language.

Staff writer Greg Bluestein contributed to this story.

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