Alabama: Committee votes to let child care providers deny services to gay couples

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MONTGOMERY, Ala. (AP) — Private adoption agencies in Alabama could turn away gay couples on religious grounds under a bill passed by a House Committee Wednesday.

The House Health Committee voted on Wednesday to move the Alabama Child Care Provider Inclusion Act to the House floor. The bill, sponsored by Rep. Rich Wingo, R-Tuscaloosa, would allow adoption or foster placement agencies to deny services and protect those agencies from state discipline like withholding licenses.

Homosexuality or same-sex marriage is not specifically mentioned in the bill, but its supporters say recent national- and state-level court decisions “redefining marriage” catalyzed the legislation.

“They believe one man and one woman is a family. It would be offensive to their religious beliefs to place a child in a same-sex or polygamous home,” said Eric Johnston, a Birmingham attorney who worked on the legislation with conservative interdenominational group ALCAP.

The civil rights organization Human Rights Campaign opposes the bill. In a statement released after the House vote, HRC said the bill could lead to discrimination against “interfaith couples, single parents, married couples in which one prospective parent has previously been divorced” in addition to same-sex couples.

“With an estimated 5,000 children in Alabama’s foster care system, lawmakers seem focused on enshrining discrimination rather than allowing these kids the opportunity to find the loving homes they all desperately need,” said Ben Needham, director of HRC’s Project One America, in an emailed statement.

When asked if Wingo’s bill could be used to deny services to a straight couple who had been divorced, Johnston said faith-based agencies have always had “certain standards they set.”

“There’s never been any requirement that these private religious agencies make certain kind of placements,” Johnston said.

Wingo’s bill passed amid a national conversation about religious freedom as states like Mississippi and North Carolina this year pushed through broad religious liberty legislation that opponents say condone state-sanctioned discrimination.

Georgia last month passed an overarching religious freedom bill which would allow any business to deny services to same-sex couples on religious grounds, but Gov. Nathan Deal vetoed the bill after severe public backlash.

“It’s not like the gays and lesbians are being discriminated against,” Wingo said Wednesday. “Nobody’s being discriminated against, they have other options.”

Couples or individuals denied services can go to secular organizations, Wingo said, as religious groups only make up about 30 percent of placement agencies in the state.

A nearly identical bill failed to make it to a House vote in 2015, but Wingo said he will continue “push hard” for the legislation.

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