LGBTQ Advocates Fear 'Religious Freedom' Bills Moving Forward In States | KERA News

LGBTQ Advocates Fear 'Religious Freedom' Bills Moving Forward In States

Feb 26, 2017
Originally published on February 26, 2017 7:12 am

There are renewed efforts at the state level to pass so-called religious freedom bills. LGBTQ rights advocates believe that's because local lawmakers are anticipating support from the Trump administration.

In Alabama, there's a bill that allows adoption agencies that are religiously affiliated to hold true to their faith if they don't think same-sex couples should be parents. The psychiatric community has found no evidence that having same-sex parents harms children.

The bill is called the Child Placing Agency Inclusion Act. When it was first introduced two years ago, the bill didn't go very far. But since the election that has changed. For the first time the bill is listed on the Alabama State Senate GOP agenda.

"This bill has been fast-tracked through the House of Representatives with support from both Senate and House Republican leadership," says Eva Kendrick, the Alabama state manager for the Human Rights Campaign, an LGTBQ rights group.

With the choice of Jeff Sessions to be attorney general, the Trump administration has picked someone who is likely to be an ally on these state bills. Back when Attorney General Sessions was a U.S. congressman, he referred to separation of church and state as something that was "recent," "unhistorical" and "unconstitutional."

Sarah Warbelow, the legal director for the HRC, fears that the choice of Sessions as attorney general is a signal to local lawmakers.

"A number of states have introduced bills for many years that would allow child welfare agencies to discriminate on the basis of religious belief," Warbelow says. "But since this particular executive order draft leaked out, we've seen a number of states really begin the process of moving those bills."

In addition to the bill in Alabama, she says there are similar ones based on religious freedom that are moving more quickly in Texas, South Dakota and Oklahoma.

Even without the passage of the bill, April Aaron-Brush says she and her wife have run into problems trying to adopt. They already have a 10-year-old adopted daughter.

But for many years in Alabama, only Aaron-Brush could legally adopt her. Then the Supreme Court legalized same-sex marriage, and now she and her wife are recognized as parents under the law. When they decided they wanted to adopt another child, they ran into problems.

"We've had several agencies that refused to call us back already because we were a same-sex couple — although we've got marriage equality, and we're supposed to be equal" says Aaron-Brush. "But at this point in time, we're still having hurdles to jump over."

Aaron-Brush says the agencies didn't explicitly tell her they were turning them down because they are a lesbian couple. But all their forms asked about a mother and father and at least one of the agencies has a Christian affiliation.

Aaron-Brush has thought about investigating and perhaps taking legal action.

That's why religious agencies want protection, says Eric Johnston, an attorney who represents several adoption agencies in Alabama with a religious affiliation.

"They anticipated there could be problems and wanted to — in advance — think it through and do something that would be reasonable and to the benefit of everyone concerned on both sides of the issue," Johnston says.

The bill's sponsor in the Alabama House is Rep. Richard Wingo.

"The bill is saying that: Do not discriminate against these faith-based agencies and force them to place children — foster or adoption — into homes that go against their religious beliefs," Wingo says.

According to Wingo, in some states, religious agencies have closed rather than be forced to put children with same-sex couples. He believes keeping them open helps more children. And he says only 30 percent of the adoption agencies in Alabama have a religious affiliation.

So, he feels lesbians like Aaron-Brush have alternatives.

Wingo won't say how he feels about same-sex couples adopting.

"It doesn't matter what I think," he says. "If you are a follower of Christ then what matters is what does the word of God say. What does God say about it?"

Advocates for the LGBTQ community fear that this reasoning will soon make it harder for their community to adopt.

Copyright 2017 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

LOURDES GARCIA-NAVARRO, HOST:

During the Obama administration, there were hundreds of bills introduced in state legislatures that tried to limit LGBTQ rights. But most didn't go anywhere. Now there are renewed efforts on the state level to pass so-called religious-freedom bills. LGBTQ-rights advocates believe that's because local lawmakers are anticipating support from the Trump administration. NPR's Laura Sydell reports.

LAURA SYDELL, BYLINE: April Aaron-Brush and her wife have a 10-year-old adopted daughter. But for many years in Alabama, only Aaron-Brush could legally adopt her. Then the Supreme Court legalized same-sex marriage. And now she and her wife are recognized as parents under the law. They want to adopt another child. But that hasn't been so easy.

APRIL AARON-BRUSH: We've had several agencies that refused to call us back already because we're a same-sex couple. Although we've got marriage equality, and we're supposed to be equal - but at this point in time, we're still having hurdles to jump over.

SYDELL: Aaron-Brush says the agencies didn't tell her explicitly they were turning them down because they are a lesbian couple. But all the forms asked about a mother and a father. And at least one of the agencies has a Christian affiliation. Aaron-Brush has thought about investigating and perhaps taking legal action. That's why, says Eric Johnston, religious agencies want protection. Johnston is an attorney who represents several adoption agencies in Alabama with a religious affiliation.

ERIC JOHNSTON: They anticipated there could be problems and wanted to, in advance, think it through and do something that would be reasonable and to the benefit of everyone concerned on both sides of the issue.

SYDELL: Johnston helped draft a law that would make it clear that faith-based agencies can hold true to their beliefs if they don't think same-sex couples should be parents. Representative Richard Wingo of the Alabama House then worked to get the bill introduced.

RICHARD WINGO: The bill is saying that - do not discriminate against these faith-based agencies and force them to place children, foster or adoption, into homes that go against their religious beliefs.

SYDELL: Wingo says in some states, religious adoption agencies have closed rather than be forced to put children with same-sex couples. And he says only 30 percent of the adoption agencies in Alabama have a religious affiliation. The psychiatric community has found no credible evidence that having lesbian or gay parents harms children. But Wingo says...

WINGO: It doesn't matter what I think. If we're a follower of Christ, what matters is - what does the word of God say? What does God say about it?

SYDELL: Wingo's bill didn't go very far when he first introduced it two years ago. This year, the bill is listed on the Alabama State Senate GOP agenda for the first time. Eva Kendrick is the Alabama state manager for the Human Rights Campaign, an LGBTQ-rights group.

EVA KENDRICK: This bill has been fast-tracked through the House of Representatives with support from both Senate and House Republican leadership.

SYDELL: With the choice of Jeff Sessions to be attorney general, the Trump administration has picked someone who is likely to be an ally on these state bills. Back when Attorney General Sessions was a U.S. congressman, he referred to separation of church and state as something that's recent, unhistorical and unconstitutional. Sarah Warbelow is the legal director for the HRC. And she believes the choice of Sessions as attorney general is sending a signal to local lawmakers.

SARAH WARBELOW: In just a short period of time, we're seeing renewed vigor in the states around passing legislation predicated on the idea that they're protecting religious liberties but truthfully allowing widespread discrimination.

SYDELL: In addition, Warbelow says there are similar religious-freedom adoption bills in South Dakota, Oklahoma, Texas. The faster advancement of these bills has advocates for the LGBTQ community nervous about their future under the Trump administration. Laura Sydell, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.