Last month, Texas state lawmakers passed House Bill 3859, which will give child welfare agencies, including those that receive government funds, protections from legal challenge if they assert their “sincerely held religious beliefs.”
This means that child welfare providers can discriminate against single parents, children and parents who identify as LGTBQ and individuals who practice a different religion.
The Texas child welfare system is currently in turmoil, with close to 30,000 children now in care, of whom nearly 13,000 are waiting to be adopted. But this law is a big step in the wrong direction — it would abandon the best interests of children under the guise of religious freedom.
In Texas, legislators have decided to protect the special interests of child welfare agencies and prioritize their leaders’ personal religious beliefs rather than focusing on what’s best for children. Laws such as this enable agencies to pick and choose which children and prospective families they serve, which could have serious, negative consequences for children who have already experienced abuse, neglect and loss.
Under this law, an agency could choose not to place a child with his loving grandmother because she is Jewish. Staff could force a child to attend a religious school even if the child does not practice that faith. Agencies could — and some certainly will — refuse to license LGBTQ parents for foster care and adoption, even if they are qualified and ready to open their homes and hearts to children in need. An agency could also refuse to provide services to a teen who is LGBTQ or Muslim.
Supporters of the law note that agencies have to refer a family who is denied service to another agency, but the denial of service could be traumatizing for youth and could deter families from pursuing foster care or adoption. Given the large number of faith-based agencies in Texas, there’s also no guarantee that prospective parents would find a welcoming agency in their community.
Religion is an important part of many Americans’ lives and has the power to bring about positive changes and outcomes. In child welfare, churches have long been effective partners in finding and supporting families for children. However, legislation like HB 3859 uses religion as a tool to protect discrimination, especially — but not exclusively — against LGBTQ prospective parents.
Research long ago debunked the notion that LGBTQ parents are “less than” other parents based on their sexual orientation. Study after study has confirmed that LGBTQ parents are as good as other parents. The tens of thousands of children in foster care in Texas—including those currently sleeping on state office floors because there are no homes for them—deserve the best possible chance for a family, and allowing agencies to turn away LGBTQ parents may prevent these children from ever leaving care to a loving family.
But these laws do more than allow discrimination against qualified, loving families. LGBTQ youth can also be discriminated against or hurt. The law could also allow agencies and providers to use therapies, diets, medical treatments and even forms of discipline that may be harmful to children if the agency deems it religiously acceptable.
Certain therapies and treatments for LGBTQ youth (such as conversion therapy) have long been considered unethical and abusive. Yet in Texas, legislators have chosen to ignore research, facts and best practices, and opened the doors to agencies being able to use these therapies in the name of agency leaders’ religion.
The child welfare system was created and designed to protect children, to allow them to grow to their full potential and to help them become thriving members of society. Texas House Bill 3859 will make that more difficult for many kids. The bill’s language is broad and vague, but under any interpretation it puts the needs of child welfare providers above those of the children they are tasked to serve. This state-sanctioned discrimination has the potential to decrease the number of families available and increase the trauma and adversity children experience.
As a child welfare system, we must, above all else, protect America’s abused and neglected children. We must explore all potential avenues to ensure children join safe and loving families, and we must do everything in our power to protect kids from further trauma. We must never prioritize the “sincerely held religious beliefs” of child welfare agency leaders over the protection of children.
April Dinwoodie is chief executive and Kimberly Paglino is program director for the Donaldson Adoption Institute. Mary Boo is executive director of the North American Council on Adoptable Children. Schylar Baber is executive director of Voice for Adoption.