The Georgia State Senate advanced a controversial bill on Friday that would allow taxpayer-funded adoption agencies to refuse service to queer couples on the basis of religious belief.
Senate Bill 375, also called the “Keep Faith in Adoption and Foster Care Act,” cleared the Senate 35 to 19 following an hour of debate. The measure would allow adoption agencies to deny referrals to LGBTQ couples if workers feel providing those services would violate “sincerely held religious beliefs.” SB 375 would also allow for the refusal of services to queer and transgender youth. The Georgia Department of Human Services would be prohibited from taking “adverse action” against agencies invoking the legislation.
Sen. William Ligon (R-Brunswick), the bill’s sponsor, argued the legislation is crucial for faith-based organizations.
“Just because you are a faith-based organization, doesn’t mean you have to check your faith at the door and cannot participate in government programs,” Ligon said. He also asserted that the measure would not actually keep queer couples from growing their families.
“This bill does not prevent anyone from adopting,” the state senator said.
Others strongly disagree.
Sen. Jen Jordan (D-Atlanta) — who defeated Jaha Howard, a Democrat who came under fire for his comments questioning the “homosexual agenda in public education”, for her seat last year — engaged in a heated debate with Ligon.
“Isn’t it true, that looking at the language of this bill, if the department were trying to place a gay teenager, and they knew that a child-placing agency was anti-gay, anti-LGBTQ, that they could not take that into consideration into determining whether that child-placing agency was the best child placing agency for that child?” Jordan asked.
She wasn’t alone. Sen. Nan Orrock, another Atlanta Democrat, noted that many members of Georgia’s queer community are also people of faith, something the legislation appears to overlook.
“I want to underscore for all of us here that gay people also practice in faith communities, also have religious beliefs,” said Orrock. “The idea, the aspersion cast that a same-sex couple does not constitute a faith-based family — what are we saying here? What kind of belief is that?”
“This proposition that we should … protect agencies that are gonna deny loving families the opportunity to adopt a child from our foster care system is just backward on its face,” she continued.
An attempt to attach language allowing for “religious freedom” exemptions as an amendment to comprehensive adoption legislation failed last year. But Ligon vowed at the time that he would pursue other measures to ensure the amendment’s revival, cuing the introduction of SB 375.
Seven states currently allow for discrimination against queer couples seeking to adopt or foster children: Texas, Alabama, Mississippi, Virginia, Michigan, and both North and South Dakota. Chelsey and Bailey Glassco, a lesbian couple in Childersburg, Alabama, told Scalawag in January that the state’s legislation has taken a toll on their family, including their foster son, who they hope to adopt.
“This law is a protection for the majority, for a group who doesn’t need protection,” Bailey Glassco told the publication.
“It’s easy to say the law is not going to change anything for the worse. But how can you predict that?” she said. “This month, they’re feeling gay friendly. Let’s say Mr. So and So, who usually puts foster care in the homes of gay couples, goes home and his wife just read an article about some pedophile and how he had boyfriends or whatever, and he says we’re not dealing with gay people anymore. Things won’t change immediately, but it just takes one person.”
Georgia is moving in the same direction as Alabama, something the state’s business sector is hoping to avoid. Legislation targeting the LGBTQ community has proven costly for states like North Carolina, where “bathroom bill” efforts cost the state almost $4 billion. That’s not something many Georgia-based companies want, especially in booming Atlanta. Both the Atlanta Chamber of Commerce and Georgia Chamber of Commerce are opposed to SB 375, as have companies like First Data, an Atlanta-based company with 24,000 employees worldwide.
Current business isn’t all that’s at stake. Atlanta is vying for consideration as Amazon narrows down potential locations for the technology giant’s second North American headquarters. At least 20 other areas are also competing for the company’s attention and Amazon has included a “cultural community fit” requirement in its list of desired attributes. While Atlanta itself has a large and thriving LGBTQ community, that requirement could be a problem for the city if SB 375 passes the Georgia House.
The debate is also a source of partisan contention as the state’s primaries approach. Lt. Gov. Casey Cagle, a Republican gubernatorial candidate, has expressed support for the bill. Both Democrats running for governor have panned SB 375.
“[L]egislation that discriminates under the guise of religion has no place in our state,” said Former House Minority Leader Stacey Abrams, who is vying to be Georgia’s first Black woman governor. Abrams argued the bill “harms Georgia’s most vulnerable children.” Her rival, Rep. Stacey Evans, called the legislation “hateful.”
Following its passage in the Senate, Georgia’s House of Representatives must now vote on the bill. If approved, final say lies with Gov. Nathan Deal (R), who vetoed a similar measure two years ago but who has yet to comment on SB 375. A rally planned by advocacy group Georgia Equality opposing the legislation is set to take place on March 1.