State Sens. Jesse Stone (from left), Bill Cowsert and Butch Miller held a press conference to discuss the adoption bill after its passage Thursday. The Georgia Senate passed House Bill 159 after two hours of debate. The bill, carried by Stone in the Senate, is meant to make adoptions easier and faster, but senators amended it last week to add a provision that Gov. Nathan Deal vetoed last year. BOB ANDRES /BANDRES@AJC.COM

Georgia Senate approves adoption bill despite governor’s concerns

The Georgia Senate passed a bill Thursday designed to unite more children with adopted families, moving forward despite Gov. Nathan Deal’s objections to legislative add-ons.

Senators voted 40-13 for the adoption legislation, House Bill 159, which would make it easier and faster to adopt children and place more of the state’s 14,000 foster children with families. The bill now returns to the Georgia House.

The latest version of the adoption measure drops “religious liberty” provisions that doomed the legislation last year, but several senators promised to revive that debate in separate legislation later this year.

Those provisions would have allowed faith-based agencies to avoid placing children with same-sex couples.

Though the religious liberty language is gone, the Senate inserted a proposal last week that Deal vetoed last year. He opposed House Bill 359, which would have allowed parents to temporarily hand over authority over a child in the event they’re called to active military duty, enter drug rehab or fall on hard financial times.

Senate Majority Leader Bill Cowsert speaks in support of the adoption legislation, House Bill 159, which passed the state Senate on Thursday. The bill is meant to make adoptions easier and faster, but senators amended it last week to add a provision that Gov. Nathan Deal vetoed last year. BOB ANDRES /BANDRES@AJC.COM
Photo: The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

“We think this is best for the children of Georgia, as well as parents in Georgia,” said state Senate Majority Leader Bill Cowsert, R-Athens. “The governor expressed some concerns with it. We hope that we’ve addressed those concerns in this version of the bill.”

But Deal wasn’t appeased. He commended the Senate for taking action but continues to oppose the Senate’s changes to the adoption bill. His veto message last year said HB 359 would have granted power of attorney for a child to an individual or nonprofit agency without state oversight for the child’s safety.

“I have serious concerns regarding their version of the bill and am hopeful they will be addressed through the legislative process,” Deal wrote on Twitter after the Senate’s vote Thursday.

Adoptions from foster care take more than twice as long in Georgia as in the rest of the nation — about 30 months in Georgia compared with 13 months nationwide.

The adoption bill intends to reduce that gap by allowing birth mothers in Georgia to partially waive the state’s 10-day period during which they can reclaim babies from adoptive families, reduce age limits for adoptions involving siblings, facilitate international adoptions and eliminate a six-month residency requirement for adoptive families.

Sen. Elena Parent speaks with colleagues on the Senate floor as she objected to changes in adoption legislation Thursday. The Georgia Senate passed House Bill 159, relating to adoption, after two hours of debate. BOB ANDRES /BANDRES@AJC.COM
Photo: The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

State Sen. Elena Parent, D-Atlanta, said the Senate’s changes to the bill hurt its chances of passing the Georgia General Assembly this year.

“We’re playing games with an adoption bill and risking it, and I don’t think that’s the most prudent course of action to take for families in Georgia,” Parent said from the Senate floor.

House Speaker David Ralston said he’ll review the Senate’s version of the bill before deciding how to proceed. If the House, which passed its version of HB 159 on a 165-0 vote last year, disagrees with the Senate’s changes, the legislation would head to a conference committee for negotiations.

“We’re making progress,” said Ralston, R-Blue Ridge. “I commend them for taking out the language that created problems last year, but I am concerned over putting back in a bill that was vetoed by the governor.”

Even if the adoption bill passes, the battle over religious liberty protections seemed more certain than ever to resume.

State Sen. William Ligon, who added the religious protections to the adoption bill last year, said adoption agencies shouldn’t have to choose between closing down or violating their faith.

“We have removed these distractions from the adoption bill,” said Ligon, R-Brunswick. But when he revives religious liberty legislation, “the people of this state will see exactly where their government stands on this issue.”

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