‘Religious liberty’ adoption bill fans debate in Georgia

Kevin Herrick and Zach Greene-Herrick pose with their son Richard in front of Cinderella Castle at Walt Disney World in fall 2019. Photo courtesy of Zach Greene-Herrick.

Credit: Contributed

Credit: Contributed

Kevin Herrick and Zach Greene-Herrick pose with their son Richard in front of Cinderella Castle at Walt Disney World in fall 2019. Photo courtesy of Zach Greene-Herrick.

Acworth real estate agent Zach Greene-Herrick knew he wanted kids since he was a teenager. So it was hard not to be discouraged when he and husband Kevin Herrick were turned away by adoption agencies unwilling to work with same-sex couples as they looked to expand their family in 2015.

“It was pretty traumatic and nerve-racking,” said Greene-Herrick. “‘Are we sure Georgia is where we want to live?’ was definitely a thought that was thrown around.”

Eventually the couple found an LGBTQ-friendly adoption organization, Atlanta-based Families First, that helped match them with their son Richard, now 14, and a pair of brothers the Herricks are currently in the process of adopting.

Opponents of a “religious liberty” bill filed last week in the state Senate warn it could further discourage families like the Herricks from adopting by codifying ambiguities in Georgia law already allowing agencies to reject prospective parents on religious grounds.

They also say the measure’s reach could stretch far beyond the gay community, potentially affecting single people, atheists and religious minorities looking to adopt — or at least sending a message that they’re less welcome.

State Sen. Marty Harbin, sponsor of Senate Bill 368, said the legislation will lead to more children being placed in loving homes, not fewer, by attracting child placement groups previously concerned their religious views wouldn't be protected in Georgia.

“We should have as many options as there can be,” Harbin said. “It doesn’t take away anything from anybody but it preserves the rights of those that are there.”

Similar legislation was shelved in 2018, but some observers think conservative Georgia political leaders could be receptive to the effort less than a year after Gov. Brian Kemp signed a sweeping anti-abortion bill into law, especially with a high-stakes election around the corner.

‘Hostile message’

Today, adoption agencies contracting with the state of Georgia can turn down same-sex couples because neither the state nor the federal government protects against discrimination based on sexual orientation or gender identity.

Melissa Carter, executive director for the Barton Child Law and Policy Center at Emory University, said no faith-based provider in Georgia has been denied a license because of their religious convictions.

Carter said the potential effects of the Harbin bill are murky but warned it could give groups leeway to discriminate.

“This bill really just amounts to kind of a hostile message that…will only serve to discourage people from stepping up to help the children in need that our system and state is required to serve,” said Carter. She said the measure could also harm LGBTQ children waiting to be adopted.

Critics of faith-based adoption laws have raised questions about how effective other states' initiatives have been and pointed to studies that show same-sex couples are significantly more likely than others to adopt or foster children.

Proponents, meanwhile, praised Harbin’s bill for potentially opening the door to more children being placed into permanent loving homes.

“Faith-based agencies have very strong core doctrinal values and they should not be penalized for it,” said Tom Smiley, pastor of Lakewood Baptist Church in Gainesville. “My role in this is not to be against anybody, it’s to support and encourage faith-based adoption agencies so they can continue to be part of this very important institution.”

Smiley’s church assists adoptive and foster care families once children have been placed.

Kemp has proposed changes aimed at encouraging more people to adopt children out of foster care. (Not all adopted children go through the foster care system; some are adopted through private channels or internationally.)

While Harbin’s bill is separate from Kemp’s initiative, the two could merge later in the legislative session. Despite Harbin’s measure having the support of Senate GOP leaders, House Speaker David Ralston recently declined to comment on the bill’s fate in the chamber.

Kemp, a social conservative, has not closed the door to such legislation. The Republican previously told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution he would not try to preemptively block legislation that would allow agencies to refuse to work with LGBTQ people, but deal with the issue "when the time comes."

Ending discrimination

Georgia's political leaders have tangled over multiple religious freedom initiatives for the better part of the last decade. Faith-based and other conservative groups argue they're necessary to protect their closely held religious beliefs, while business organizations like the Georgia Chamber and Metro Atlanta Chamber of Commerce warn such legislation will harm the state's welcoming reputation

Proponents have received backing from President Donald Trump, who won the White House with overwhelming support from evangelicals. In early 2019, his administration granted permission to a South Carolina ministry to participate in a federally funded foster care program even though it only works with Christian couples, a fight that’s since shifted to the courts.

Supporters of Harbin’s measure say it doesn’t bar gay couples or others from adopting children elsewhere and that the bill is merely expanding options for birth parents who care about keeping their child in a particular faith.

"This doesn't in any way prohibit those that may disagree with (faith-based adoption agencies) from going anywhere else and being a part of an adoption process," said Mike Griffin, a lobbyist with Georgia Baptist Mission Board. "This is about making sure that faith-based agencies are not discriminated against."

Lakewood Baptist Church’s Smiley said between 10 and 20 families in his congregation have adopted children in the past few years. Birth mothers often have a list of stipulations about where their child ends up, he said — including the adoptive parents’ religious beliefs.

Smiley said those women wanted their children to be in Christian homes with families who “held to traditional Christian faith.” The families declined to be interviewed for this article.

Zach Greene-Herrick and Kevin Herrick with their son Richard on the day his adoption was finalized in 2017. Photo courtesy of Zach Greene-Herrick.

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‘Shot at a different life’

The legislative debate hits close to home for Morgan Hayes.

Hayes was a college student in Savannah in 2004, when Georgians voted resoundingly to approve a constitutional amendment banning gay marriage, a move that "put me back in the closet for another three years."

The marketing professional came out and eventually moved to Oregon, where she met her wife, Lyndsay. In 2017, the couple adopted their then-10-year-old daughter out of foster care.

“The more negativity that we throw out and state that this whole community is somehow lesser than other people, kids hear that,” said Hayes, who now lives in Johns Creek.

In Acworth, Greene-Herrick is concerned about the children in the foster care system who risk “falling through the cracks” in an already backlogged system. He pointed to his son Richard, who arrived in the Herricks’ care nearly three years ago with an undiagnosed case of dyslexia and an eyeglass prescription that was double what it should be. None of the people in Richard’s life prior to that had noticed — or taken the time to fix it.

“It is so much better for these children to be adopted, regardless if it’s a same-sex couple or not, than to stay in foster care,” Greene-Herrick said. “They get a shot at a different life. So to restrict anybody is just absurd.”