(CN) – On Friday, Tennessee Governor Bill Lee quietly signed a bill allowing faith-based adoption agencies to decline placing children in homes based on the organizations’ religious convictions, legislation that had drawn criticism from groups advocating for LGBT civil rights.
In creating the law, Tennessee joined eight states with similar legislation on their books and further highlighted the tension between faith-based organizations and advocates for LGBT rights, surrounding adoption and foster care.
“The governor believes that protection of rights is important, especially religious liberty. This bill is centered around protecting the religious liberty of Tennesseans and that’s why he signed it,” said the governor's spokesman Gillum Ferguson in a statement.
After the Tennessee Senate passed the legislation Jan. 14 on a 20-6 vote, the American Civil Liberties Union said on Twitter it was the first anti-LGBT bill a legislature passed in the new year.
The two-page legislation, which went into effect the moment it was signed, prohibits the Tennessee Department of Children’s Services from revoking the licenses of or deny funding to private child-placing agencies in the state if the “placement would violate the agency’s written religious or moral convictions or policies.”
It also prevents couples and individuals who were denied by a faith-based agency from suing in civil court.
Chris Sanders, executive director of the Tennessee Equality Project, said the LGBTQ advocacy called on Lee to veto the bill until he put pen to paper. With the law enacted, he expects a legal organization might challenge the law in court at some point.
“If public money is involved, then everybody ought to be able to be served,” Sanders said. “I mean, why should I subsidize my own discrimination?”
The passage of the legislation makes Sanders believe 2020 will be a “rough session” for LGBT rights in the General Assembly.
For instance, it is expecting a bill to be introduced that proposes ending marriage licensure in Tennessee, which is designed as a response to the Supreme Court’s decision legalizing same-sex marriage.
There are 30 licensed private agencies that help Tennessee Department of Children Services provide out-of-home care in the state, according to the department’s June 2017 to July 2018 annual report, the most recent report available online.
Typically, about 80% of the adoptions in the state – and DCF finalized 1,272 in that timeframe – occur when foster caretakers make their foster care permanent.
Licensed private agencies facilitated 750 domestic adoptions and 135 through international adoptions.
DCS reported in a November press release 350 children are waiting to be adopted in the state – most of them teenagers in foster care.
Currey Cook, director of Lambda Legal’s Youth in Out-of-Home Care Project, said Tennessee’s timing of the law is troubling, given the opioid epidemic has left more children in state care and, thanks to a new federal law, the federal government is directing states to place more children with families rather than group homes.
In some states, faith-based organizations get large contracts to assist the state in adoption and foster care services, Cook said.