Oklahoma Governor Signs Faith-Based Foster Care Bill, Kansas is Likely Next

Oklahoma Gov. Mary Fallin (R) signed into law a bill that permits the state’s faith-based child welfare partners to discriminate against same-sex couples, single or unmarried people, and possibly even LGBTQ youth.

The law protects faith-based groups by permitting them to decline foster parent and adoption services to people or couples based on the religious principles of the organization.

The law “allows faith-based agencies that contract with Oklahoma to continue to operate in accordance with their beliefs,” said Fallin, in a statement. “In a day and time when diversity is becoming a core value to society because it will lead to more options, we should recognize its value for serving Oklahoma also because it leads to more options for loving homes to serve Oklahoma children.”

Freedom Oklahoma, an LGBTQ rights group campaigning against the law, said in a statement before Fallin’s signing that it will “codify discrimination and make it more difficult to place the over 9,000 children and youth in … the foster care system,” and would have a “detrimental effect on our state’s already struggling economy.”

Oklahoma is the eighth state to pass such a law since 2015, when the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that same-sex marriage was to be recognized in all of the 50 states and territories. Kansas will likely soon become the ninth: a similar bill has passed through the legislature, and Gov. Jeff Collyer’s (R) administration has already voiced support for the bill.

The seven states with such legislation already on the books are Alabama, North Dakota, South Dakota, Virginia, Mississippi, Michigan and Texas.

faith-based child welfare
The Oklahoma Fosters campaign helped grow the state’s roster of available foster and adoptive parents

Fallin’s statement lays clear the motivation for such laws: the ability to tap into the faith community to recruit and retain enough foster and adoptive parents to meet the number of placements needed. The overall number of youth in care has risen steadily since 2012, and a report by The Chronicle of Social Change last year highlighted the capacity challenges currently faced by many states.

“Other states that have declined the protection to faith-based agencies have seen these agencies close their doors, leaving less options for successful placement of children who need loving parents,” Fallin said.

But some child welfare advocates have questioned that argument in Oklahoma, where the number of foster homes has increased sharply without these faith-based protections. The state had a non-relative foster bed capacity of 2,310 in 2012. That had risen to 5,612 by 2017.

The surge has been attributed in part to Oklahoma Fosters, a state-funded campaign to raise the state’s capacity.

“When we started Oklahoma Fosters, Catholic Charities [one of the law’s proponents] chose not to be involved in that,” said David Hall, a foster youth advocate and student at Oklahoma City University, in a March interview with The Chronicle. “Now they want to be involved by having this bill.”

Hall also voiced concern that while the bill’s aim is to permit discrimination against adults interested in fostering and adoption, it could empower faith-based groups to decline services for foster youth based on LGBTQ status or religious background. It would be difficult to accomplish legally, though, as youth are not required to provide that information to child welfare officials.

Freedom Oklahoma voiced its intention to contest the legality of the law on its Facebook page:

Our message to Governor Mary Fallin and and the lawmakers who championed this travesty is simple: we’ll see you in court!

There is a lawsuit pending in federal court now that challenges Michigan’s version of a faith-based protection bill.

Georgia’s legislature also moved a faith-based bill during its 2018 session, which was openly opposed by Gov. Nathan Deal (R) and did not pass.

On Capitol Hill, Congress has bills supporting and forbidding faith-based protections. The Child Welfare Provider Inclusion Act would empower the Department of Health and Human Services to financially penalize 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.”

Rep. John Lewis (D-Ga.) has introduced a bill that would do the exact opposite. Lewis’ Every Child Deserves a Family Act (H.R. 2640) prohibits any recipient of federal assistance for adoption and foster care placements from discriminating against any potential client.
There is also a related lawsuit moving against the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS). A same-sex couple hoping to foster and/or adopt a refugee was declined for approval by a faith-based grantee of HHS because the couple did not “mirror the holy family.”
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John Kelly, Editor in Chief, The Chronicle of Social Change
About John Kelly, Editor in Chief, The Chronicle of Social Change 1213 Articles
John Kelly is editor-in-chief of The Chronicle of Social Change. Reach him at jkelly@chronicleofsocialchange.org.