AUSTIN, Texas (CN) – The Texas House gave its approval Wednesday to a bill that would allow faith-based foster care and adoption agencies in Texas to refuse to place children in homes that conflict with their religious beliefs.
House Bill 3859 protects the “sincerely held religious beliefs” of child welfare service providers, protecting the groups if they refuse to place children in non-Christian or LGBT households. The bill shields providers that decline to assist any potential foster or adoptive parent whose lifestyle might conflict with the groups’ religious beliefs, meaning unmarried or divorced people could be refused services as well.
The measure would also protect providers if they place a child in a religiously based school or refuse to provide contraceptives or facilitate abortions.
During a lengthy debate on the measure Tuesday night, the bill’s author, Rep. James Frank, R-Wichita Falls, said that providing faith-based providers with “reasonable accommodations” would ensure that there are more homes available for foster care children in Texas.
Frank said faith-based providers are wary of providing child welfare services because they have been sued for refusing services based on religious beliefs, although he was unable to name any such litigation in Texas.
At a committee hearing on the bill in March, representatives from several religiously aligned groups testified that without the protections provided by the bill, they will be forced to shut down their foster care or adoption programs.
If that happened, it would be a tough blow to the state’s already broken child welfare system that state lawmakers have been trying to fix since December 2015, when a federal judge ruled that Texas’ long-term foster care system violated children’s constitutional right to be free from unreasonable risk of harm.
A major problem with the system is simply the lack of available beds. Last month, the Texas Department of Family and Protective Services reported that 65 children had been sleeping in the Child Protective Services offices or other temporary living arrangements in March.
Frank, who is an adoptive father, said the purpose of his bill is “not to exclude or deny services, it is to help as many people as possible to participate in the services in a way that respects all points of view.”
“Despite the fabricated hysteria over [HB 3859], it does not ban anyone from participating,” Frank said. “It rather encourages all to participate. Nothing in this bill prevents individuals and couples from becoming verified for foster care and adoptive parents. It is about specialization, not discrimination.”
Opponents to the bill, however, said HB 3859 was more about political posturing than helping children.
“The idea that kids in foster care should be political pawns is just crushing,” Rep. Celia Israel, D-Austin, said during the debate. “While a judge, and many of you, would put these kids first, others would say [agencies’] rights should be put above children’s rights … HB 3859 only accentuates and gives credence to discrimination.”
Rep. Jessica Farrar, D-Houston, said she is concerned that the bill could restrict access to contraceptives for young people in foster care, noting that 50 percent of young women in foster care become pregnant at least once before their 19th birthday.
“We’re now taking the considerations of the providers over the best interest of the child,” she said.
Rep. Donna Howard, D-Austin, asked Frank if the bill required agencies to notify the Department of Family and Protective Services when they turn someone away, or if foster parents are required to report that a child has asked for services that they refuse to provide.
Frank said there were no such requirements and he didn’t believe it would be a good idea, given that foster parents and CPS workers are “bogged down” in paperwork.
“It is extremely important that we know what’s happening with these children,” Howard said.
The House rejected several amendments proposed by Democrats, but accepted an amendment offered by Frank requiring that, if an agency refuses to serve a prospective parent, it must provide contact information for another organization that will.
The House voted 93-49 to approve the bill Wednesday, with four Democrats voting for and two Republicans voting against it. The bill will now be sent to the Texas Senate.