Protection for faith-based children's homes goes to TX Senate

by Bonnie Pritchett/Southern Baptist TEXAN, posted Wednesday, May 17, 2017 (7 days ago)

AUSTIN (BP) -- A Texas bill offering legal protection for faith-based foster and adoption care agencies is on its way to the state's Senate floor for debate.

Photo by LoneStarMike via Wikimedia Commons
Biblically faithful agencies who find themselves at odds with the politics of sexual identity are seeking relief from the Texas legislature that would allow them to continue ministering to children in accordance with their faith.

If the bill passes the Senate without amendments, it will go to Gov. Greg Abbott, who is expected to sign it. The date for the Senate debate has not been set as of May 16.

Despite Republican control of both legislative chambers, House Bill 3859 has received stiff challenges in and out of the Capitol. Answering accusations of "discrimination" and "bigotry" has put many of the bill's supporters on the defensive. The Southern Baptists of Texas Convention, religious liberty organizations and conservative lawmakers have dismissed the criticism as unfounded and championed the bill as an essential component of the sorely needed Texas adoption and foster care overhaul.

Its author -- Rep. James Frank, R- Wichita Falls -- has repeatedly responded to accusations that the bill will prevent gays and lesbians from fostering or adopting or keep teenage girls from accessing abortion services and contraceptives.

"Nothing in 3859 will prevent or even add barriers to same-sex couples who desire to foster or adopt. Nothing," Frank told the TEXAN. "The bill simply codifies current federal guidelines at the state level and provides a way to refer and make sure all individuals that are seeking to adopt or become foster parents can do so without losing the 25 percent that want to be free to serve and follow their faith."

Faith-based providers have long partnered with the state of Texas in caring for neglected and abused children and currently make up about 25 percent of providers. And for more than two decades the state has actively sought to enhance that relationship in order to shore up an overwhelmed Department of Family Protective Services.

The agency tasked to protect the state's neglected and abused children has been under heavy criticism in recent years. Children languish in the system, some even dying while in state care. Burned-out child protective services caseworkers quit. Additionally, an insufficient number of Texans open their homes to foster, and those who do don't stay long in the system. A U.S. district judge has ordered the state to rectify the problems.

The request for protection by faith-based adoption and foster care agencies -- including long-established Texas Baptist Home for Children, an SBTC-affiliated ministry -- is not new. A bill offered in 2015 by Rep. Scott Sanford, R-McKinney, failed to get traction.

Related bills offered this session in the House and Senate cleared initial committee hearings but, for procedural reasons, lobbyists have worked to advance HB 3859. The bills' authors, both active members of their respective Southern Baptist churches, adamantly defend the legislation as necessary and non-discriminatory. Frank's authorship of HB 5 and HB 6, the main foster and adoption care overhaul bills, adds weight to HB 3859 as a necessary component to the reform's success.

Texas has never prohibited gays and lesbians from taking part in the system. But as the state contracted more with private agencies to recruit and train prospective parents -- now about 90-95 percent of the providers -- those agencies were allowed to add to the state's standards for participation. Families and individuals wanting to foster or adopt children must be licensed by one of the agencies.

About 25 percent of those agencies are faith-based. But not all of those put a priority on placing children in the homes of married moms and dads or would defer to the state if a foster child wanted an abortion.

In House floor debate last week Democrats said the bill would bar gays and lesbians from fostering and adopting. They said when private agencies accept state tax dollars they cannot "discriminate" against prospective parents or children.

That is a false argument according to Brantley Starr, deputy first assistant attorney general. In response to questions from Frank about an Associated Press article that some said mischaracterized the bill, Starr said, "The [article] headline wrongly presupposes that all people and entities receiving government funding cannot work in accordance with their religious beliefs."

He said the fear of increasing litigation has caused faith-based agencies to close in Texas and across the nation.

"Should the state not work with the 25 percent of faith-based providers anymore as they have for decades, force them to choose to change their beliefs about marriage and life or either close their doors to orphan care?" Cindy Asmussen SBTC Texas Ethics and Religious Liberty Advisor.

She said that without protection from litigation or attempts to marginalize their ministries, agencies in California, Massachusetts, Illinois and Washington D.C. chose to shutter their businesses.

To avoid similar losses in their states, legislators in North and South Dakota, Michigan, Virginia and Alabama passed laws similar to HB 3859. The Texas law would require adoption and foster care providers that turn away prospective parents based on religious convictions to direct them to agencies in the area who will serve them.

Bonnie Pritchett is a correspondent for the Southern Baptist TEXAN (www.texanonline.net), newsjournal of the Southern Baptists of Texas Convention.
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