This spring, state lawmakers across the United States have been considering dozens of bills that would restrict the rights of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) people. But in stark contrast to previous years, state legislatures have so far shown little appetite for enacting new anti-LGBT laws. Lawmakers have successfully defeated efforts to restrict bathroom access for transgender youth in South Dakota and Tennessee, prohibit discussions of LGBT issues in schools in Indiana, and give adoption and foster care agencies a license to discriminate against LGBT parents in Georgia.
As state legislative sessions draw to a close, however, all that could change. Lawmakers in Colorado, Kansas, and Oklahoma have all advanced bills that would allow adoption and foster care agencies to turn away qualified parents based on the agencies’ religious convictions. Effectively they would allow agencies to reject all same-sex couples as potential parents. One of these bills, Oklahoma’s SB 1140, has passed the legislature and now awaits Governor Mary Fallin’s signature. The bills do not balance antidiscrimination protections for LGBT people and religious freedom as proponents claim, but are a blatantly discriminatory backlash against LGBT equality in the United States.
It is misleading to call these laws “religious exemptions.” This implies that antidiscrimination laws already protect LGBT people who want to adopt and foster children, and that certain agencies would like to be exempt from this. But only eight states and the District of Columbia expressly prohibit discrimination based on sexual orientation or gender identity in adoption and foster care.
In Alabama, Michigan, Mississippi, North Dakota, South Dakota, Texas, and Virginia, laws already give adoption agencies a license to discriminate against prospective parents based on agencies’ religious beliefs.
Human Rights Watch research has shown why these laws are so harmful. They let agencies turn away well-qualified prospective parents, and prevent the children in their care from being placed with loving families with LGBT parents – or even single parents, or parents of different faiths. Of course, this deters would-be parents from pursuing adoption. And it sends a clear message that LGBT people are second-class citizens.
Injecting politics into the child welfare system is dangerous and wrong. The best interest of the child should always be paramount in child placement decisions, and a provider’s beliefs should never prevent children from finding a loving, permanent home. In the final days of the legislative sessions, lawmakers in Colorado, Kansas, and Oklahoma should stand up for that principle, put kids first, and reject these discriminatory bills.