Alabama advances bill protecting adoption agencies that discriminate

“Religious freedom” is apparently more important than finding the best homes for kids.

CREDIT: iStockphoto/ BrianAJackson
CREDIT: iStockphoto/ BrianAJackson

On Monday night’s The Daily Show, Alabama’s first openly gay state lawmaker, Rep. Patricia Todd (D), boasted in a recorded interview, “We are the only southern state that has not passed anti-gay legislation since I’ve been in office.” She is no longer correct.

The Alabama House gave final approval Tuesday to HB 24, a bill that ensures that child-placement agencies can discriminate without any repercussion from the state. Specifically, the state can not refuse, revoke, or suspend the agency’s license or take any “enforcement action” against it if it refuses to make certain placements because of its religious convictions. In other words, refusing to serve same-sex couples, unmarried couples, or any other kind of potential parent for religious reasons is just fine.

HB 24 bears a significant resemblance to South Dakota’s similar “license to discriminate” for adoption agencies that passed earlier this year, with one major exception. As it wound through the legislature, Alabama’s bill was weakened by a provision specifying that the protections only apply if the agency receives no state funding. This means the legislation doesn’t require the state to fund discrimination. (South Dakota’s does.)

As such, it’s unclear exactly how many agencies would actually be impacted. The bill’s sponsor, Rep. Rich Wingo (R), has said that about 30 percent of the state’s adoption agencies are faith-based, but back in February, AL.com reported that those agencies also largely receive state funding.

Wingo has never hidden the fact that he was motivated to file the bill because other states have had child-placement agencies shut down because of the arrival of marriage equality. Though he described them as being “forced to close their doors,” in every case where that happened, it was because the agency unilaterally decided to discriminate, which was either in violation of state nondiscrimination laws (not its marriage laws) or prompted the state to stop funding it. These agencies’ decisions were largely political. In Colorado, for example, Catholic Charities actually threatened to shut down if a 2012 civil unions bill passed, even though the bill the agency was opposing included an exemption that would have allowed it to discriminate. Alabama doesn’t have any LGBT nondiscrimination laws, but HB 24 nevertheless seems to fall short of Wingo’s goal.

Even with the state funding caveat limiting the scope of the bill, the possibility of any agency legally refusing a same-sex couple is still problematic. The Human Rights Campaign’s Eva Kendrick previously explained that while it’s true same-sex couples can generally choose secular agencies, the provision could still interfere when a same-sex couple wants to take in a child who is a relative but in the care of a faith-based agency. “The goal of out-of-home care is always reunification with the family of origin,” she said back when the bill was introduced, and if the next of kin is LGBT or a same-sex couple, the agency’s penchant for discrimination would result in a decision that is not in the best interest of the child.

And though Todd favored the change that limited the bill’s effect to agencies that don’t receive state funding, she still decried the general intent of the bill. “This bill obviously came about because same-sex marriage was approved,” she told AL.com Tuesday. “It’s based in a stereotype. And it’s wrong. And we shouldn’t discriminate and I will always fight that.”

HB 24 now heads to Gov. Kay Ivey (R) for her consideration.