March 9, 2018
2300 N. Lincoln Blvd.
Oklahoma City, OK 73105
Re: SB 1140 and LGBT Equality
I write on behalf of Human Rights Watch to share our concerns about SB 1140, a bill that would prohibit the state from withholding funding, licenses, and other support to child welfare agencies that discriminate based on their religious beliefs.
In recent months, Human Rights Watch has interviewed lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) people and service providers in states that have enacted religious exemptions similar to the ones under consideration in Oklahoma. We have documented the impact of these laws in a recent report, “All We Want is Equality”: Religious Exemptions and Discrimination Against LGBT People in the United States. Based on this research, we wish to lay out some of our concerns about a bill that would give child welfare agencies the ability to turn away qualified parents based on their sexual orientation or gender identity.
First, bills like SB 1140 depart from the traditional notion of religious exemptions and do not represent good-faith efforts to balance LGBT equality and religious freedom. Oklahoma has not yet enacted a non-discrimination law that requires religious adoption and foster care agencies to place children with same-sex couples. Providing an exemption affirmatively permitting discrimination is both unnecessary and harmful, emboldening providers to turn away qualified same-sex couples. Furthermore, the bill lacks the kinds of safeguards that have historically ensured that religious exemptions are not misused to infringe on the rights of others. It has no mechanism for the state to enforce important interests in the realm of child welfare or to ensure that prospective parents are able to obtain services in their area. It does not take account of the rights of all involved; instead, it puts taxpayer money and support behind the agency’s beliefs without accounting for harms to children in the state’s custody and the qualified parents who would care for them.
Second, bills like SB 1140 inflict real harm on LGBT people. In some instances, qualified LGBT people have been turned away from being foster or adoptive parents for children in need of homes solely because they are same-sex couples. Even before people are turned away, however, these laws inflict harm. Interviewees told Human Rights Watch that they were reluctant to approach service providers when they knew they could be discriminated against, and in some cases delayed becoming or decided not to become parents because they had been turned away. Many interviewees stressed that these laws made them feel like second-class citizens, and put the state’s stamp of approval on religiously motivated discrimination against them.
Third, SB 1140 would jeopardize the rights of children in the state’s care. Research indicates that same-sex couples are six times more likely to become foster parents than heterosexual people, and four times more likely to become adoptive parents. Permitting agencies to refuse placements with qualified families delays or denies permanent housing for children in the care of a religiously affiliated agency. For LGBT youth—who are overrepresented in the foster care system—allowing providers to place children according to their religious beliefs rather than the best interest of the child may also preclude them from being placed with supportive and LGBT-affirming parents. The guiding principle in any child welfare determination should be the best interest of the child; SB 1140 would allow providers to ignore or override that interest by asserting a religious belief.
SB 1140 fails to strike a proper balance between the freedom of religion and the rights of children and prospective parents. Human Rights Watch believes that SB 1140 is an unnecessary bill that functions first and foremost as a license to discriminate, and we urge you to oppose the legislation. Please do not hesitate to contact us if we can provide further information.
Director, LGBT Rights Program
Human Rights Watch