Georgia governor slams ‘religious liberty’ change to adoption bill

Gov. Nathan Deal on Monday said he opposes a late Senate effort to add "religious liberty" protections to an unrelated bill dealing with adoptions, a change that could allow private adoption agencies receiving public money to refuse to place children with LGBT families.

The governor's message could stall the measure in the Legislature's final days of the 2017 session, and it suggests the bill would face his veto if it passed with the change intact. But, with negotiations over dozens of bills ongoing in the waning days, no bill is dead for sure until the gavel falls on the final day.

“I certainly don’t want that to happen, and I would hope they would reconsider the addition to this language that could put the whole bill in jeopardy,” Deal said.

House Bill 159, a bipartisan bill to modernize Georgia's adoption laws, was changed late Thursday in the Senate Judiciary Committee to include language that would protect private adoption agencies that receive state money but don't want to place children with all families.

The move on a 7-4 vote would essentially protect agencies that may have a faith-based mission and do not want to place children with same-sex couples, although it could be applied broadly. All seven votes in favor were from Republican senators; the four voting “no” were Democrats.

Supporters of the change on the committee said it could also apply to an agency with a mission to place children with African-American families, for example.

"It's just a matter of what options you can provide in the placement of children," said state Sen. William Ligon, R-Brunswick, who authored the change. "We should do all that we can to ensure those needs are met. It is recognizing the diversity in our culture."

Others who supported the measure said anyone concerned by the move needed to consider how it could help more children find homes.

"Isn't it true there are adoption agencies that place children with homosexual families?" asked state Sen. Hunter Hill, R-Smyrna. By not allowing agencies to discern who they want to serve, he said, it meant that "everybody's just got to be vanilla with no passion."

State Sen. Greg Kirk, R-Americus, who sponsored a major religious liberty bill last year that Deal eventually vetoed, called it a "big" bill for the chamber to move forward.

Kirk also asked state officials whether they already worked with agencies under similar arrangements. They said no.

Bobby Cagle, the director at the state’s Division of Family and Children Services, said the agency uses state and federal money working with some adoption agencies that have particular specialties, such as those that help place developmentally disabled children. But he said none of the 89 agencies the department works with are allowed to specialize in placing children with families of a single race, for example.

Cagle also said while the department works with agencies that are affiliated with churches, the rules say those agencies cannot discriminate against the religion of the child or purposely weed out those who don’t have the same faith.

The committee’s decision, he added, would endanger “hundreds of millions of dollars” the agency received from the federal government because they appear to violate federal nondiscrimination laws.

Cagle’s office said he was referring to the department’s requirement to comply with the Civil Rights Act to receive federal funds.

The DFCS director handed out a Justice Department memo to Senate Judiciary Committee members before the vote that said the law's Title VI provision is an "overarching anti-discrimination statute that applies to the programs and activities of all entities receiving federal financial assistance."

The changes to HB 159 were done over the objections of its sponsor, state Rep. Bert Reeves, R-Marietta, who said he had been notified of them less than two hours before Thursday's hearing. Reeves on Monday said he was aware of Deal's comments and said he and the governor "are on the same page."

Georgia’s top business leaders condemned the Senate’s move.

“We are opposed to the recent changes made to HB 159 that could allow groups receiving state taxpayer dollars to discriminate against other Georgians,” the public policy directors of the Metro Atlanta Chamber and Georgia Chamber of Commerce said in a joint statement.

Democrats on the Judiciary Committee said it's wrong for public dollars to subsidize discrimination. If an adoption agency enters "into a contract with the government that is taxpayer-funded, they are bound to provide it in a nonsecular fashion," said state Sen. Elena Parent, D-Atlanta.

“It’s inappropriate for your tax dollars to discriminate against you,” she said.

Lost in the fight over the amendment was the need for Reeves’ original version of the bill. The second-term lawmaker has worked for the past two years to modernize the state’s adoption laws. Melissa Carter, the director of the Barton Child Law and Policy Center at Emory University, said Reeves’ bill is needed.

“Over time things get outdated, and it’s time to step back and look at the entirety of the (adoption) code,” Carter said. “As a legal practice, adoption is a highly technical area. Over time it needs to be updated and modernized.”

Carter said she is concerned both that the bill passes as amended and that the entire bill is defeated because of Ligon’s change.

“It’s certainly a possibility that the entire bill could be lost as a casualty of these efforts,” she said.

The bill is now before the Senate Rules Committee, which will decide whether it will get a floor vote. That panel did not add HB 159 to the Senate’s agenda for Wednesday, which is when lawmakers next meet.

Staff writer Greg Bluestein contributed to this article.

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