AUSTIN, Texas (CN) — Religiously based foster care and adoption services in Texas told lawmakers Wednesday they will be forced to stop helping children unless legislation is passed to protect their “sincerely held religious beliefs.”
House Bill 3859 would protect faith-based providers of foster care and adoption services from litigation if they refuse to place children in homes that conflict with the groups’ religious beliefs.
The bill, taken up Wednesday by the House State Affairs committee, would also protect providers if they place a child in a religiously based school, refuse to facilitate abortions, or refuse to contract with organizations that conflict with their religious beliefs.
State Rep. James Frank, R-Wichita Falls, said the purpose of his bill is to protect faith-based groups, which provide 25 percent of child welfare services in Texas, from being sued for “nothing more than the audacity to act on the beliefs that are different than the popular culture.”
Opponents say the bill gives religious based groups a license to discriminate, allowing them to refuse to place foster children with gay couples or families with different religious backgrounds.
Frank, who is a foster parent, said the bill is not intended to prevent same-sex couples from adopting or fostering, and he thanked same-sex foster care parents and other members of the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender community for their contributions to the lives of at-risk children in the state.
The intent of the bill, he said, is to maintain a diverse network of service providers and to make accommodations that allow people from all religions to participate in the child welfare system.
“We need all types of providers,” Frank said. “We need religious, we need secular, we need LGBT … to provide enough good fits for all types of children from diverse backgrounds.”
He said the best interests of children are the top priorities of the bill, and that it does not allow child welfare providers to “do anything they want.”
“Rather, it allows them to say no in very specific, limited circumstances,” Frank said.
Representatives from several religiously aligned groups testified that without these protections they will be forced to shut down their foster care or adoption services.
If that were the case, it would be a tough blow to the state’s already broken child welfare system. State lawmakers have been grappling with how to fix the system, since U.S. District Judge Janis Jack of Corpus Christi ruled in December 2015 that Texas’s long-term foster care system violated children’s constitutional right to be free from unreasonable risk of harm.
“It would be tragic if the reforms sought this session did not ensure that we could provide foster care services in accordance with the very values that make our assistance so essential to the success of reform,” said Jennifer Allmon, executive director of the Texas Catholic Conference of Bishops. “Too often today we are forced to choose between the good works we do by faith and fidelity to that faith itself.”
Allmon said that Catholic charities across the country have repeatedly been targets of litigation on this topic, and that Catholic groups have closed almost all of their foster care programs in Texas, to use their resources on other ministries rather than in court.
“It breaks my heart and it breaks the heart of the Catholic Bishops of Texas to end 166 years of orphan ministry because of continued litigation on the issue,” Allmon said.
Joshua Houston, general counsel for Texas Impact, an interfaith public policy group, said he “wholeheartedly” agrees with the legislative intent of the bill, but that the “devil on these bills is in the details.”
“There are provisions in the actual test of the bill that we feel open a Pandora’s box in unintended consequences,” Houston said.
He said the scope of the bill is too broad, and creates ways for child welfare service providers to evade regulatory enforcement.
Houston and others who testified against the bill said it could allow faith-based groups to practice their religious beliefs about discipline, medical treatments or conversion therapy, which could hurt to children.
Brantley Starr, deputy assistant attorney for the Texas Attorney General’s Office, told the committee there is nothing in the bill that would stop Child Protective Services from intervening if a child is abused.
Abusers couldn’t be “cloaked in the First Amendment defense when they’re harming another person,” Starr said.
The committee left the bill pending.