On Thursday, Texas Governor Greg Abbott (R) signed a bill that will allow child welfare service providers to decline to provide certain kinds of care based on “the provider’s sincerely held religious beliefs.” The bill, House Bill 3859, will permit discrimination against LGBTQ couples wishing to adopt children, in addition to allowing LGBTQ children to be placed under the agencies’ care in “religious education.” The bill goes into effect in September.
As ThinkProgress noted when the bill passed the Texas House in May, the bill affects not only child placement services (think adoption agencies), but group homes, counseling services, care for abused children, and other resources for children with complicated family situations. The bill will have a broad reach, affecting organizations that provide a wide variety care options for a large number of children.
When the bill goes into effect, those organizations can legally refuse to provide care for children on the basis of their sexuality or gender identity, or on the basis of the sexuality or gender identity of someone in their family, as long as the provider can cite “religious beliefs.” They will be able to do the same for same-gender couples wishing to adopt children, and ultimately for anyone whose situation can somehow be considered in violation of their religious beliefs.
Texas state Rep. Gina Hinojosa (D) pointed out that it could be used to justify, for example, a Christian organization refusing to provide services to a Jewish family. All an organization that denies service to someone must provide is a link to “the web page on the department’s Internet website that includes a list of other licensed child welfare services providers” and a referral to another organization. The bill makes no mention of what a child already receiving care can do if they want that care to change.
Prioritizing the religious beliefs of organizations who care for children over the religious beliefs, and human rights, of children, the bill will allow child welfare services to place LGBTQ children under their care into “religious education” that demonizes them or undermines their self-worth. A 2014 GLSEN survey found that over half of all LGBTQ children feel unsafe in schools in general, with 74 percent of students reporting verbal harassment; placing these students into homophobic conservative religious education can only add to that fear and unease.
The Human Rights Campaign noted that studies have shown LGBTQ children are more likely than their cisgender and heterosexual peers to end up in the care of child welfare organizations, often as a result of being disowned by their families after coming out, or being outed against their will. Experts say that allowing child welfare organizations to force these children into programs that further reject their identities, or even to reject them altogether, can be incredibly detrimental to their mental health and well-being.
But religious minorities will also be impacted by the bill, which allows child welfare organizations to place children who are members of religious minorities (Jewish or Muslim children, for example) into Christian schools. Forcing a child whose faith ties them to their family and their culture to go through religious education for a religion that is not theirs is detrimental to the right to freedom of religion, and can have long-term consequences for the child. HB 3859 allows service providers to alienate children from their beliefs and their heritage in the name of religious freedom.
An also overlooked but potentially dangerous part of the legislation allows providers to “decline to provide, facilitate, or refer a person for abortions, contraceptives, or drugs, devices, or services that are potentially abortion-inducing.” Teenagers living in group homes who need birth control to help with period pain could be refused it. Teenagers in the same situation who find themselves with unwanted pregnancies could also be at risk. The bill will seriously impact teenage girls with living situations that are already difficult.
The only thing providers can be penalized for, under HB 3859, is declining to provide someone welfare services on the basis of race. No mention is made of discrimination on the basis of religion, sexual orientation, or gender identity. Child welfare service providers could legally refuse to provide services to families with an LGBTQ member, or families who practice Islam or Judaism, if they can claim “sincerely held religious beliefs” prevent them from doing so.
The bill was condemned immediately after passage by the HRC and by GLAAD, whose president put out the following statement on Thursday:
Lawmakers used religion as a weapon to pass a bill that not only harms qualified candidates who want to start families, but children. This law was never about the best interests of Texans or of children, but about forwarding a political agenda to codify the permission to discriminate against LGBTQ Texans into state law. Discrimination has won in Texas, and it saddens me that a child can now be denied the chance to live with a deserving family simply because they are LGBTQ.
HB 3859 is only the latest in a series of harmful bills pushed by Texas legislators this year; others include SB 4, which cracks down on undocumented immigrants, and SB 522, which would have allowed county clerks to opt out of issuing marriage licenses to same-gender couples. The state, alongside other efforts happening nationwide with varying degrees of success, also has its own transphobic “bathroom bill” effort under way.