LANSING, Mich. — Lawmakers could vote this week on bills letting faith-based agencies refuse to participate in adoptions that violate their beliefs, despite accusations that they would permit discrimination against gays and others.
Advocates of the legislation say it would codify existing practice into law and preemptively protect religious child-placing organizations from repercussions if Michigan ever legalizes same-sex marriage or civil unions.
Critics say the bills would authorize discrimination by agencies receiving state funding for child placements.
It is the latest dispute over “conscience” legislation, measures pushed by the Michigan Catholic Conference and other groups to protect their religious freedom. A bill that would let health workers and businesses object to providing contraception or other medical services on moral grounds has been pending on the floor of the Senate for five months.
The adoption fight could be an indication of the extent to which the Republican-led Legislature will move social issues to the desk of Republican Gov. Rick Snyder, who has mostly tried to steer clear of them in favor of economic and budget policies.
GOP legislative leaders say they are willing to consider adding protections for gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender people to Michigan’s anti-discrimination law, for example, but are struggling to balance between respecting religious convictions and prohibiting discrimination.
Rep. Kenneth Kurtz, a Coldwater Republican who chairs the House Families, Children, and Seniors Committee, said he plans to hold a committee vote on the adoption conscience bills on Wednesday.
They would prohibit the state or a local government from denying a child-placing agency a grant or contract if it objects to facilitating, referring or participating in an adoption that violates the agency’s written religious or moral convictions or policies. Nor could the government consider the agency’s objections in funding or contracting considerations.
“I believe this protects, no matter who it is, faith,” Kurtz said. “It’s not promoting any religion. It protects. If I were John Q public, I’d be thankful for the protection.”
On the other side are those who see defending religion as permitting intolerance.
“The state of Michigan with regard to child placement has a duty to focus on, first and foremost, what is in the best interest of the child,” said Jay Kaplan, staff attorney for the American Civil Liberties Union of Michigan’s LGBT Project. “It should not be approving and fostering the ability of placement agencies to discriminate, particularly where state funding is involved.”
He said if private agencies forego state funding, then they are free to make moral or religious determinations the “paramount” consideration in placing children.
It is not clear to what extent, if any, prospective adoptive parents are denied a chance to adopt for moral reasons. If turned away, they could seek to adopt from non-religious agencies, though advocates say that is not in the best interest of foster children, particularly those with severe problems who might wait longer to be adopted.
“Capable and willing families that are eager to love and support our state’s most vulnerable children should be encouraged and supported,” said the Rev. Nicolette Siragusa, pastor of a Grand Ledge church who testified against the legislation last week.
In the backdrop are Oct. 1 arguments to be heard by a Detroit federal judge on the legality of Michigan’s ban on gay marriage and joint two-parent adoption by same-sex couples.
The state is responsible for about 14,000 abused or neglected children who are in foster care at any given time. About 3,000 are available for adoption if they cannot be safely returned to their parents or other relatives, and nearly 300 of them do not have an identified adoptive family.
As of 2009, the state Department of Human Services contracted with private agencies for 75 percent of adoption cases under its supervision. Separately, private agencies also work to help an unspecified number of birth mothers find homes for their infants.
Catholic Charities handles 10 percent of all adoptions in the state, according to the Michigan Catholic Conference, which says Catholic agencies in Illinois, Massachusetts, San Francisco and Washington, D.C., have been forced to close to avoid operating in violation of their religious tradition.
“I do know that with the move in states to get kids placed out of foster care, faith-based agencies play a big role in that,” said William Blacquiere, president and CEO of Bethany Christian Services in Grand Rapids. “We are not opposing same-sex adoption or gay adoption or LGBT adoption. We’re just saying we have a different value, belief, etc. and there are many agencies available, including the state, who can serve them.”
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