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New Tennessee Law Deepens Discrimination Against LGBT People

Lawmakers Should Reject Bills Harming LGBT People, Children

Tennessee State Capitol in Nashville, Tennessee, January 8, 2020. © 2020 AP Photo/Mark Humphrey

Tennessee has just become the latest US state to let taxpayer-funded adoption and foster care agencies operate under their own religious or moral beliefs – even if this means discriminating against prospective parents or jeopardizing the best interests of children.

Lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) people, single parents, and religious minorities have faced problems trying to adopt or foster children in the US because some agencies will only place kids with heterosexual parents of a particular faith – a discriminatory practice.

The Tennessee House approved the bill last year and the Senate took it up almost immediately when the legislature reconvened. Ignoring concerns from LGBT and civil rights groups, Governor Bill Lee signed the bill into law on January 24.

Tennessee joins eight other US states – Kansas, Mississippi, North Dakota, Oklahoma, South Carolina, South Dakota, Texas, and Virginia – that allow taxpayer-funded agencies to discriminate in the name of religion. Alabama and Michigan allow private agencies to discriminate, but not those that receive state funding. At the national level, the Trump administration has proposed a rule that would roll back antidiscrimination protections for federally funded child welfare agencies, further exposing LGBT people to discrimination.

Only five states – California, Michigan, New Jersey, New York, and Rhode Island – actively prohibit discrimination on the basis of both sexual orientation and gender identity in child welfare services.

As Human Rights Watch has noted, laws like Tennessee’s strike the wrong balance between equality and religious freedom. They ignore the rights and dignity of prospective parents, and also jeopardize the best interests of children, who may go longer without a family of their own because agencies will not place them with qualified parents.

Regrettably, Tennessee’s lawmakers may not be finished. One of the other anti-LGBT bills filed in the current legislative session would prohibit state agencies and municipalities from enforcing their own nondiscrimination policies; another would bar transgender kids from participating in sports consistent with their gender identity; and still another would give legal support to schools that bar transgender kids from accessing bathrooms.

Tennessee’s license to discriminate was the first anti-LGBT bill enacted in 2020, but it should also be the last. These laws are deeply harmful to LGBT people and children in need of parents – and lawmakers should roundly reject them.

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