House Appropriations Bills Would Permit Discrimination By Faith-Based Child Welfare Providers

Rep. Robert Aderholt (R-Ala.)

Rep. Robert Aderholt (R-Ala.), who last month was appointed to help lead Congress’ largest child welfare coalition, successfully introduced a controversial amendment yesterday that would enable faith-based providers to choose what families to serve based on religious beliefs.

The amendment, attached to the House Appropriations Committee bill to fund the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) for fiscal 2019, could among other things permit federally funded providers to refuse to recruit, train or support same-sex or unmarried couples interested in fostering or adopting children.

The amendment would codify in federal policy the protections that have been signed into law in several states since the 2015 Supreme Court decision that established same-sex marriage as the law of the land.

Since that ruling, nine states have passed laws that shield from penalty any faith-based provider with state contracts that wishes to choose clients based on religious beliefs. Those states are: Alabama, Kansas, Mississippi, Michigan, North Dakota, Oklahoma, South Dakota, Texas and Virginia.

At the center of the issue is recruitment of foster and adoptive parents. Both are in high demand in several states as the number of children placed into foster care rises. Both the faith-based community, and the LGBTQ community, are sources of massive potential in increasing the number of available caregivers.

Some (not all) faith-based providers say they will not work in the sector without a guarantee that they can follow their religious beliefs when it comes to selecting which families or even youths to serve. Organizations in some of the states with these faith-based laws have begun to challenge the laws as violations of constitutional rights.

Aderholt’s amendment inserts into the appropriations process a standalone bill that has been offered for several years by Sen. Mike Enzi (R-Wyo.) and Rep. Mike Kelly (R-Penn.). The Child Welfare Provider Inclusion Act (H.R. 1881) would empower HHS to dock 15 percent of either the Title IV-B or IV-E allocation of a state that takes “adverse action” against “a child welfare service provider on the basis that the provider has declined or will decline to provide, facilitate or refer for a child welfare service that conflicts with, or under circumstances that conflict with, the provider’s sincerely held religious beliefs or moral convictions.”

The amendment passed on a nearly party-line vote of 29-23. The only Republican who voted against the amendment was Rep. Scott Taylor (Va.).

The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops and Catholic Charities USA support the Enzi/Kelly bill, as does the conservative think tank Heritage Foundation.

“The current attack on our nation’s faith-based adoption agencies should sicken every American,” said Tim Chapman, executive director of Heritage Action, a political action committee related to the foundation. “At a time when the opioid crisis is displacing thousands of kids and straining our nation’s foster care system, Congress should act swiftly to pass the Inclusion Act. This bill will ensure faith-based adoption agencies can continue to place thousands of kids in stable homes with a loving father and mother.”

The amendment was met with condemnation from the Human Rights Campaign, a national LGBTQ advocacy group, as well as several child welfare advocacy groups.

“Any member of Congress who supports this amendment is clearly stating that it is more important to them to discriminate than it is to find loving homes for children in need,” said David Stacy, director of government affairs at the Human Rights Campaign, in a statement on HRC’s website. “HRC urges Congress to reject this discriminatory amendment in the final appropriations bill.”

Child welfare consultant Maureen Flatley said the amendment, were it to become law, is more likely to shrink the pool of potential foster parents than grow it.

“It will exacerbate the pre-existing deficit of families even further,” she said, in an email to The Chronicle of Social Change. “In a universe of policy initiatives Congress should be working on, this is not it. We need to be far more strategic when it comes to congressional activity to promote the recruitment of foster and adoptive parents. This amendment only undermines those goals and the real and pressing need children have for families.”

Enabling providers to pass on unmarried foster and adoptive candidates could disproportionately affect the African-American community, said Michelle Hughes, an attorney specializing in adoptions.

“Black single parents are a huge segment of the Black community adopting and adopting Black kids,” said Hughes, in an email to The Chronicle. “It looks like a neutral rule regardless of race in allowing to discriminate against singles but the reality is that it will hit the Black community hard and will force more Black children to be raised without Black parents and community.”

Earlier this summer, Enzi and Kelly pushed the Trump administration in a letter to initiative executive actions at HHS to protect faith-based providers. Among the recommendations in the letter: Rescinding two current federal policies that require HHS funding recipients not to discriminate in the administration of the money, and require recipients to recognize same-sex marriages.

The letter said the two policies “wrongfully target faith-based child placing agencies.”

This is Aderholt’s first child welfare-related action as a co-chair of the Congressional Coalition on Adoption, a bicameral organization that works to engage congressional members on issues related to families, foster care and adoption. The other co-chairs are Sen. Roy Blunt (R-Kansas), Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.) and Rep. Brenda Lawrence (D-Mich.).

Kelly and Enzi, the authors of the Child Welfare Provider Inclusion Act, are also members of the Congressional Coalition on Adoption.

Blunt sits on the Senate Appropriations Committee. His office has not yet responded to an email from The Chronicle asking whether the senator intends to introduce a similar amendment in the other chamber.

The Congressional Coalition on Adoption is closely aligned with the Congressional Coalition on Adoption Institute (CCAI), a national nonprofit with programs that include the annual Angels in Adoption Awards and Foster Youth Internship Program. CCAI does not take a position on any legislation.

Kim Hansel contributed to this article.

Note: This article has been updated.

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John Kelly is editor-in-chief of The Chronicle of Social Change.