Virginia’s “Conscience Clause” Would Shield Child Welfare Providers from Sexuality Conflicts

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Virginia’s General Assembly is close to passing a law that will shield its faith-based child welfare partners from having to work with adoptive parents whose sexual orientation, or beliefs, do not coincide with the principles of the organization.

The Republican-endorsed law, which Gov. Robert McDonnell (R) is expected to sign if it passes, would permit state-funded, faith-based agencies to choose which parents are suitable for adoption based on the agencies’ beliefs, as Anita Kumar of the Washington Post reported yesterday.

According to Kumar, there are 16 faith-based agencies that help Virginia Department of Social Services train, license and match adoptive parents. Last year, those agencies receive some of the $144 million in state and federal funds that went to a total of 77 private child welfare agencies.

Illinois recently went in the opposite direction after a law allowing for civil unions took effect in May, as Youth Today reported here over the summer. Virginia does not allow unmarried couples of any orientation to adopt, but it does sanction adoption by a single parent. 

Before the Illinois civil union law took effect, the state Department of Children and Family Services had what spokesman Kendall Marlowe described as an “awkward compromise” with several of its faith-based providers of foster and adoptive parents.

The agencies were allowed to refrain from licensing any potential foster or adoptive parent that was not married, but they had to “deflect gay couples by referring them to DCFS or other agencies,” Marlowe said.

But when the civil union law took effect, DCFS severed ties with five regional affiliates of Catholic Charities. The agencies fought in court to have their contracts restored, but lost, ending child welfare services partnerships that had last more than four decades.

Delaware and Hawaii will both permit civil unions starting in 2012, and officials in both states told Youth Today over the summer they did not expect any opposition from its faith-based providers over licensing of unmarried couples, gay or straight.

New York and New Hampshire have recently passed legislation that allows for same-sex marriage, and both states permit a faith-based service provider to avoid services it believes to be in conflict with religious philosophy.

Although the Illinois civil union law did not contain similar language, the bill’s sponsor, state Sen. David Koehler (D), sought a bill last year that would have amended the civil union law to shield faith-based groups, but it failed in committee.

The federal government, which provides a significant portion of foster care funds for states and therefore wields enormous influence on child welfare services, may some day have the final word on the issue. Rep. Pete Stark’s (D-Calif.) “Every Child Deserves a Family Act,” now in the Ways and Means Committee, would disallow federal funding to agencies involved in foster care and adoption placements that:

-“Deny to any person the opportunity to become an adoptive or a foster parent on the basis of the sexual orientation, gender identity or marital status of the person, or the sexual orientation or gender identity of the child involved.”

-“Delay or deny the placement of a child for adoption or into foster care on the basis of the sexual orientation, gender identity or marital status of any prospective adoptive or foster parent, or the sexual orientation or gender identity of the child.”

-“Require different or additional screenings, processes, or procedures for adoptive or foster placement decisions on the basis of the sexual orientation, gender identity, or marital status of the prospective adoptive or foster parent, or the sexual orientation or gender identity of the child involved.”

Stark’s bill is unlikely to move in a Republican-led House. A companion bill was introduced in the Senate by Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.), and that was referred to the Senate Finance Committee.