Georgia Senate votes to allow adoption agencies to refuse gay couples

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

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

A bill that would allow religious adoption agencies to reject gay couples easily cleared the Georgia Senate on Friday.

The Senate voted 35-19 to approve the "religious liberty" legislation, which ensures that taxpayer-funded adoption agencies can turn away married gay couples seeking to adopt children from foster care. The bill now advances to the state House.

Senators pushed  the bill forward despite objections from business leaders who say a battle over gay rights could hurt Georgia's reputation as the state tries to recruit Amazon to build its second headquarters in Atlanta.

Opponents of the measure say it promotes discrimination against same-sex couples and gay foster children.

Legislators supporting the measure say it's necessary, even though Georgia adoption agencies already have the ability to refuse to do business with gay couples. Discrimination based on sexual orientation isn't prohibited under state and federal laws.

State Sen. William Ligon, the sponsor of Senate Bill 375, said more religious adoption agencies will open in Georgia once they know that state law protects their ability to choose their clients. There are more than 13,000 children in Georgia's foster system.

“We’re failing these children by not doing everything that we can do to ensure every door of opportunity is open and available to them for placement,” said Ligon, a Republican from Brunswick. “There are agencies that are willing to do this if they’re given legal certainty.”

State Sen. William Ligon, left, is congratulated after Senate Bill 375 won the Georgia Senate’s approval Friday. The bill would allow adoption agencies to refuse to place children with same-sex families. STEVE SCHAEFER / SPECIAL TO THE AJC

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But senators who voted against the bill said it would create fewer opportunities for adoption, not more.

"It's backward on its face," said state Sen. Nan Orrock D-Atlanta. "You want more families coming forward to adopt children and reduce this growing load of children stuck in our foster care system. The way that you do that is not to bar LGBT families from adoption."

The Senate's passage of the bill, along with Lt. Gov. Casey Cagle's support, requires the House to give it "due consideration," said Kaleb McMichen, a spokesman for House Speaker David Ralston.

“Some have called SB 375 a ‘license to discriminate’ against people wishing to adopt in Georgia. That is not a charge to take lightly,” McMichen said in a written statement. “House members will need to take appropriate time to study this measure and consult with experts in the field before proceeding.”

Leaders of the state’s business community were more blunt in their resistance to the bill, urging lawmakers to oppose the measure in a letter placed on the desks of senators.

“This legislation will negatively impact our state’s well-earned reputation as a welcoming and inclusive place to do business,” wrote Metro Chamber Chief Policy Officer Katie Kirkpatrick and Georgia Chamber lobbyist David Raynor. “There’s no doubt that SB 375 would diminish our ability to attract the significant economic development prospects that we’re competing for today.”

Two years ago, Gov. Nathan Deal vetoed a similar religious liberty measure, saying it didn't reflect Georgia's image as a welcoming state with "warm, friendly and loving people." That bill would have allowed faith-based organizations to deny services to those who violate their "sincerely held religious belief."

Deal hasn’t commented on the legislation that passed the Senate on Friday.

The Georgia General Assembly already approved a major bill this month meant to make it easier to adopt children. Lawmakers passed that measure, House Bill 159, after senators agreed to take up legal protections for religious adoption agencies separately, in the bill the Senate approved Friday.

Seven other states have passed similar faith-based adoption laws. In those states, there wasn’t a discernible increase or decrease in the average number of foster care adoptions in recent years, according to annual adoption statistics from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.

Gay rights advocates said the bill is more about targeting same-sex couples than protecting religious beliefs.

“No one is trying to undermine freedom of religion in Georgia — that’s why religiously affiliated adoption agencies already enjoy the freedom to work exclusively with families that share their faith values,” said Jeff Graham, the executive director of Georgia Equality. “This legislation goes out of its way to make it harder for loving and committed same-sex couples to start a family.”

Two other religious liberty bills are pending in the General Assembly, but they have yet to move from their committees.

One measure, Senate Bill 233, would create a state-level version of the federal Religious Freedom Restoration Act, which requires the government to prove a "compelling governmental interest" before it interferes with a person's exercise of religion.

Another proposal, Senate Bill 361, would ensure that high school coaches can participate in student-led prayers before sporting events.

The story so far

Adoption legislation: Earlier this month, the Georgia Legislature passed a broad measure, House Bill 159, that would update state laws to encourage more adoptions. Gov. Nathan Deal plans to sign the legislation.

Religious liberty language: Georgia lawmakers last year included a provision in HB 159 for  faith-based adoption agencies to refuse to place children with same-sex couples. Senators agreed this year to drop that language from the main adoption legislation and take it up separately.

New bill: Senate Bill 375, which allows religious adoption agencies to turn away gay couples seeking to adopt children from foster care, cleared the Senate on Friday.

“For the Children”, the Phrase of the Week by James Salzer. Video by Bob Andres /