Daniel Newman, a Georgia native and an actor on “The Walking Dead,” speaks at a March 1 rally put on by Georgia Equality to oppose Senate Bill 375, which would allow adoption agencies to turn away LGBTQ people and same-sex couples from adopting children. BOB ANDRES /BANDRES@AJC.COM

Georgia lawmakers unlikely to pass adoption bill affecting gay couples

A controversial bill to allow Georgia adoption agencies to reject same-sex couples is stalled and unlikely to become law this year, a potential victory for gay rights advocates and business interests trying to keep Atlanta in the race for Amazon’s second headquarters.

The legislation, Senate Bill 375, will die when the 2018 legislative session ends March 29 unless the Georgia General Assembly revives it within the next week. The bill never received a hearing in the state House after it passed the Senate last month.

Besides pitting “religious liberty” against civil rights, the bill also became contentious because business leaders said it could hurt the state’s reputation since Atlanta is a finalist for Amazon, the Seattle-based online store that could bring 50,000 jobs to whichever city it chooses.

“Vehicle,” the Phrase of the Week by James Salzer. Video by Bob Andres / bandres@ajc.com

Supported by faith-based adoption agencies, the legislation would have enshrined their ability to turn away anyone who doesn’t subscribe to their beliefs. Opponents of the bill said it’s discriminatory against gay parents and foster children.

Business leaders said they remain vigilant as time runs out on the session.

“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,” Katie Kirkpatrick of the Metro Atlanta Chamber and David Raynor of the Georgia Chamber of Commerce said in a statement.

State House Judiciary Chairman Wendell Willard said he won’t bring the bill up for a hearing or a vote. Still, it could be attached to another bill and brought before the House before the session ends.

Adoption agencies already have the ability to refuse to do business with gay couples, Willard said. When that happens, potential parents can go to another agency that will accept them. Discrimination based on sexual orientation isn’t prohibited under state and federal laws.

“It’s not like we need to have this. It’s a solution looking for a problem,” said Willard, a Republican from Sandy Springs.

State Sen. William Ligon, R-Brunswick, talks before a vote on Senate Bill 375 in the state Capitol in Atlanta. The bill would allow adoption agencies to refuse to place children with same-sex families. STEVE SCHAEFER / SPECIAL TO THE AJC
Photo: The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

But the sponsor of the bill, state Sen. William Ligon, said it’s needed because more religious adoption agencies would be willing to open in Georgia if they knew their First Amendment rights were protected.

More than 500 children age out of the state’s foster care system every year, and he said they’d have a better chance of finding homes if more faith-based adoption agencies operated in Georgia.

“I would just hope that Georgia would be a state which is going to extend every opportunity to children in need of placement services,” said Ligon, a Republican from Brunswick. “This bill would open one more door and opportunity for those kids.”

Representatives are reviewing legislation, but time is growing short, said Kaleb McMichen, a spokesman for House Speaker David Ralston, R-Blue Ridge.

When the bill passed the Senate on Feb. 23, Ralston said legislators should give the measure “due consideration” and consult with experts in the field. Since then, he has received two letters from adoption attorneys opposing the bill.

One of the letters came from Ruth Claiborne, an Atlanta attorney who said the legislation elevates religion above a child’s best interest.

“In reality, the problem with foster care in Georgia is not a shortage of agencies; instead, it is a shortage of qualified and loving foster parents,” Claiborne wrote. “The LGBT community historically has stepped up where many others have not, accepting difficult to place children and offering love, safety and stability.”

Mike Griffin (right), a lobbyist for the Georgia Baptist Mission Board, greets members of the state Senate Judiciary Committee before a hearing on Senate Bill 375, the Keep Faith in Adoption and Foster Care Act. BOB ANDRES /BANDRES@AJC.COM
Photo: The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

There’s always a possibility that the proposal could pass before the end of the legislative session, said Mike Griffin, a lobbyist for the Georgia Baptist Mission Board.

He said Georgia legislators shouldn’t abandon religious protections in hopes of attracting Amazon or any other business.

“If Georgia is going to remain a business-friendly state, it needs to be a state that’s very strong on constitutional rights because constitutional rights protect everybody,” Griffin said.

Gay rights advocates say the bill would sanction discrimination and it makes Georgia appear unwelcoming to businesses and families.

“We remain very concerned about what the bill would do not only to the LGBT community and the children of Georgia, but to the reputation of our state,” said Jeff Graham, a lobbyist for Georgia Equality. “It clearly would allow agencies that willingly receive taxpayer funds to deny services.”

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