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Tennessee Republicans introduce religious exemption bill protecting anti-LGBTQ+ foster parents

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Republican lawmakers in the Tennessee have introduced legislation that will ensure that people with anti-LGBTQ+ prejudices can foster and adopt children. Opponents of the proposed law say it could lead to situations in which LGBTQ+ children are placed with parents who do not accept their sexual orientation or gender identity.

Introduced in both the Tennessee House and Senate in January, the “Tennessee Foster and Adoptive Parent Protection Act” would prohibit the state’s Department of Children’s Services (DCS) from denying prospective adoptive or foster parents’ “eligibility to foster or adopt based, in whole or in part, upon the parent’s sincerely held religious or moral beliefs regarding sexual orientation or gender identity.”

During a House Civil Justice Committee hearing on Wednesday, the bill’s co-sponsor Rep. Mary Littleton (R) said that it would expand the pool of potential foster families in the state, with more people willing to step up knowing that they would not have to compromise their anti-LGBTQ+ religious beliefs. Littleton added that the bill “does not disregard the values and beliefs of the child.”

The bill, which is up for votes in both chambers of the Tennessee General Assembly, “does not preclude the department from considering the religious or moral beliefs of an adoptive or foster child, or their family of origin, when determining the most appropriate placement for that child.” But as Tennessee Lookout notes, that bill’s language does not actually require the DCS to do so.

According to the Human Rights Campaign (HRC) and FosterClub, a national network for young people in foster care, LGBTQ+ youth are overrepresented in the U.S. foster care system, with many entering the system because they have been rejected by their families because of their gender identity, gender expression, or sexual orientation.

Nashville attorney Nanette Clark told Tennessee Lookout that if the bill becomes law, it could lead to further traumatization of LGBTQ+ foster kids.

“When you require DCS to place an LGBTQ child in a placement that will refuse to support their sexual identity, not only are you creating additional adverse childhood experiences and trauma, you’re creating situations where children will find a way to escape that placement, either through running way, a suicide attempt or making false allegations against the foster parents or adoptive parents,” Clark said. “They will find a way to escape that situation.”

During a Senate hearing Tuesday, HRC’s senior director of legal policy Cathryn Oakley told lawmakers that they risked losing federal funding if the bill becomes law. Last September, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services proposed a new rule requiring all state and tribal foster care agencies to place LGBTQ+ children in homes where they will be supported, would not subjected to so-called “conversion therapy,” and would have access to gender-affirming care.  

According to Tennessee Lookout, state Attorney General Jonathan Skrmetti (R) has publically opposed the DHHS’s proposed rule, claiming it would “further divert resources away from protecting foster children from physical abuse and toward enforcing compliance with controversial gender ideology.”

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