Georgia might let adoption agencies use religion to refuse gay couples

2/8/18 - Atlanta - Senator William Ligon, R - Brunswick, presented the bill. The Senate Judiciary Committee B held a hearing on SB 375, presented by Ligon, titled the “Keep Faith in Adoption and Foster Care Act”. BOB ANDRES /BANDRES@AJC.COM

2/8/18 - Atlanta - Senator William Ligon, R - Brunswick, presented the bill. The Senate Judiciary Committee B held a hearing on SB 375, presented by Ligon, titled the “Keep Faith in Adoption and Foster Care Act”. BOB ANDRES /BANDRES@AJC.COM

If you believe several Georgia senators, allowing adoption agencies to turn away married gay couples would result in more adoptions of foster children.

They reason that more Christian adoption providers will open in Georgia if the government protects their religious objections to same-sex parents, as envisioned by Senate Bill 375.

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The legislation is the latest "religious liberty" effort in Georgia, a proposal moving through the state Senate despite fears from business leaders that it could harm the state's reputation as Amazon is deciding where to build its giant second headquarters.

But there's little evidence the measure would make a difference to the nearly 14,000 children in Georgia's foster care system.

Of the seven states that have passed similar faith-based adoption laws, none has seen a discernible change in the number of foster care adoptions, according to annual adoption statistics from the U.S. Department of Health & Human Services.

The debate might be more political than practical.

Many religious adoption agencies operate in Georgia, and they already have the ability to refuse to do business with gay couples, unmarried individuals or people who subscribe to different faiths.

No religious adoption agency has been refused a contract with Georgia's foster care system based on its beliefs, according to Melissa Carter, executive director for the Barton Child Law and Policy Center at Emory University.

Caroline Peacock, Lauren Marcewicz, their children and their dog Cleo at teh Chattahoochee National Forest in September 2016. Peacock says she opposes Senate Bill 375, which would allow faith-based adoption agencies to refuse to do business with same-sex couples. Photo credit: Caroline Peacock

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Caroline Peacock, who has adopted two children with her wife, believes the legislation would limit options for children in foster care.

“Really, it’s just discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation,” said Peacock, who lives in metro Atlanta and is in the process of adopting a child from foster care. “Ultimately, it hurts the children and it hurts potential parents who want to provide loving homes. It makes the world worse.”

Supporters of SB 375 say same-sex families could still adopt children if the legislation passes — they’d just have to work with an adoption agency that caters to them. Though the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in 2015 that same-sex couples have a fundamental right to marry, federal and state nondiscrimination laws don’t cover sexual orientation.

Sen. William Ligon, the bill's sponsor, said faith-based adoption agencies shouldn't be forced to accommodate people who conflict with their religious beliefs. He rejected the idea that he's endorsing a discriminatory adoption system.

“If you focus on the children, then we should do all that we can to open up the doors to as many people who qualify, who can provide a good, stable, loving home for those children,” said Ligon, R-Brunswick. “Why shut out agencies because of their faith?”

If the legislation passes, Georgia would join several other states that have sought to insulate faith-based adoption agencies. Three states passed such laws last year: Alabama, South Dakota and Texas. Mississippi passed its version of the law in 2016.

Adoption rates didn't change much after previous states enacted these kinds of religious adoption laws, according to data from the Administration for Children & Families, a division of the U.S. Department of Health & Human Services. Adoptions of children with public child welfare agency involvement remained close to averages recorded between 2007 and 2016 in those states: Michigan, North Dakota and Virginia.

A nationwide adoption agency, Bethany Christian Services, supports the legislation as a way to protect religious rights.

“The bill proposed is consistent with how government agencies for decades have partnered with private agencies to find homes for children,” said Bethany spokeswoman Morgan Greenberg in a statement. “It doesn’t restrict anyone from participating in foster care or adoption, but it does preserve for faith-based agencies the freedom to be faithful to our convictions.”

Eighteen senators have signed on as sponsors of the legislation, and it sailed through a Senate Judiciary subcommittee earlier this month. It will next be considered for a vote in the full Senate Judiciary Committee, led by Sen. Jesse Stone, a Republican from Waynesboro who is a co-sponsor of the bill.

Religious liberty proposals have been introduced repeatedly in the past few years but haven’t passed.

The chambers of commerce for metro Atlanta and the state of Georgia oppose the bill. Atlanta is one of 20 cities under consideration by Amazon for its expansion, which could eventually bring in 50,000 jobs and billions of dollars in economic activity.

"Legislation that sanctions discrimination takes us further away from our goal of attracting investment that would improve the lives of Georgia families," said a statement from Metro Atlanta Chamber Chief Policy Officer Katie Kirpatrick and Georgia Chamber of Commerce lobbyist David Raynor. "We accomplish that goal by focusing on issues that improve workforce development, education and transportation."

2/8/18 - Atlanta - Sen. Josh McKoon chaired the hearing. The Senate Judiciary Committee B held a hearing on SB 375, presented by Sen. William Ligon, titled the “Keep Faith in Adoption and Foster Care Act”. BOB ANDRES /BANDRES@AJC.COM

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Sen. Josh McKoon, who supports the adoption proposal, said he's not worried about scaring off Amazon. He said the online retail company will make its decision where to locate based on the available workforce, regulatory policy and tax incentives.

“Any apprehension that any of these bills is going to create a problem is just misplaced,” said McKoon, R-Columbus. “I don’t see any evidence — zero — that passing a religious freedom statute or passing a statute that will ensure these faith-based adoption agencies remain open is going to make us a less desirable location to do business.”

Still, opponents of the bill say it wouldn’t help ease the state’s backlogged foster care system.

What Georgia really needs is more foster parents and adoptive parents — not more adoption agencies, said Christopher Matos-Rogers, founder of Adopt Georgia, a support group for adoptive parents that assists nontraditional and LGBT families.

“We should be getting every type of family adopting or fostering, not limiting that,” he said. “We need to encourage a larger, more diverse number of parents to adopt.”

Georgia shouldn’t pass laws that encourage adoption agencies to turn potential parents away, said Emory University’s Carter.

Gay children could be harmed if SB 375 passes and faith-based adoption agencies send them back to foster care, she said.

“Children will stay in foster care longer, and the longer they stay in foster care, they’re less likely to be adopted,” Carter said.

Georgia religious liberty bills

  • Senate Bill 375: Allows faith-based adoption agencies to decline service to anyone who conflicts with their religious beliefs, including gay couples and unmarried individuals. Status: Senate Judiciary Committee
  • Senate Bill 361: Permits high school coaches to participate in student-led prayers before sporting events. Status: Senate Education and Youth Committee
  • Senate Bill 233: Creates a state-level version of the Religious Freedom Restoration Act, which requires the government to prove a "compelling governmental interest" before it interferes with a person's exercise of religion. Status: Senate Rules Committee