PIERRE, S.D. (CN) – South Dakota has become the first state since the Supreme Court legalized same-sex marriage in 2015 to pass a law offering “protection” to religious-based child-placement services that would allow them to turn away adoptive and foster families that do not share the agencies’ beliefs.
Until he signed the controversial bill on Friday, Republican Governor Dennis Daugaard had remained silent on whether he supported the measure or not. Many opponents of the bill had held out hope that he would veto it, as he did last year’s controversial “bathroom bill” that would have required schools to force transgender students to use the bathroom corresponding with the gender they were assigned at birth.
The new law, Senate Bill 149, announces itself as “An Act to provide certain protections to faith-based or religious child-placement agencies.”
These protections include the state’s agreement not to take any “adverse action” against faith-based organizations for refusing services that conflict with “any sincerely-held religious belief or moral conviction.”
The bill defines forbidden “adverse actions” as tax penalties, refusal to extend state grants or benefits and license revocation, among other things.
The new law also stipulates that a religious agency offering child-placement services will remain independent of the state in formulating its policies and carrying out its business—while still remaining eligible for state funding.
Although same-sex couples are never mentioned in SB 149, the law has been widely criticicized as a pass for agencies to discriminate against such families, as well as single-parent families, mixed-religion families, or families in which one parent has been previously divorced.
“This is the first anti-LGBTQ [lesbian-gay-bisexual-transgender-queer] bill that any state has signed into law this session,” Human Rights Campaign Legal Director Sarah Warbelow said in a statement. “Governor Daugaard’s action not only puts the best interests of the more than a thousand vulnerable children served by South Dakota’s foster care system at risk, it signals the potential of a dark new reality for the fight for LGBTQ rights.”
“LGBTQ children in South Dakota’s foster care system face the risk of staying in a facility that does not affirm their identity and actively works against the child’s well being by refusing to give them appropriate medical and mental health care,” Warbelow added.
The American Civil Liberties Union of South Dakota also spoke out against the new legislation. “In the end, this bill was never about religious freedom,” Libby Skarin, policy director for the ACLU South Dakota said in a statement. “It has always been about allowing private organizations that discriminate to receive state contracts and taxpayer dollars to carry out their religions missions.”
Religious organizations in the state, however, see the bill as providing greater access to services for children in need, since faith-based agencies can carry out their work without fear of state interference.
“Solidifying the state’s long-standing recognition of the lasting impact faith-based child placement agencies have on the common good will ensure there remains adequate adoption service providers in our state,” the Roman Catholic bishops of South Dakota said in a February letter to parishioners. “By doing so, more families can be invited to receive children in need of adoption and more children will find a safe and loving home while allowing us to continue providing this important ministry in accord with our deeply-held Catholic beliefs.”
The legislation explicitly forbids the agencies from discriminating on the basis of race, ethnicity or national origin.
The law passed the state senate in February with a 22-12 vote, and the House at the beginning of March with a 43-20 vote.
Alabama, Oklahoma and Texas are considering similar legislation, while Virginia, Michigan and North Dakota put such laws in place before the national legalization of same-sex marriage.
The ACLU of South Dakota is considering taking legal action and is asking families impacted by the new law to contact them.
The governor’s office did not respond to an emailed request for comment.