The Oklahoma Flag waving outside of the Oklahoma State Capitol (Photo: Okiefromokla, via Wikimedia).
The Oklahoma House of Representatives has approved a measure allowing adoption and foster care agencies to refuse to place children with same-sex couples by citing personal beliefs opposing homosexuality.
The bill states that no “private child-placing agency shall be required to perform, assist, counsel, recommend, consent to, refer, or participate in any placement of a child for foster care or adoption when the proposed placement would violate the agency’s written religious or moral convictions or policies.”
As a result, an agency could reject a prospective parent or couple based on their status as a single parent, same-sex couple, opposite-sex couple in an interfaith marriage, or any other characteristic that would cause the agency to deem a parent’s lifestyle as “immoral.”
Troy Stevenson, the executive director of Freedom Oklahoma, notes that the House version has been slightly watered down by the addition of an amendment by Rep. Leslie Osborn (R-Mustang), a longtime LGBTQ ally, that prevents private agencies that do discriminate from receiving taxpayer dollars.
However, he notes, Freedom Oklahoma still opposes the bill — even though it’s grateful for Osborn’s amendment — because it would make it lawful for agencies to discriminate against same-sex couples and other prospective parents.
“With the amendment, we no longer believe the bill to be a violation of the Establishment Clause,” says Stevenson, adding that it could still be challenged in the courts on the basis of violating the Equal Protection Clause.
Because Osborn’s amendment makes the bill that passed the House substantially different from the version that passed the State Senate last month, the bill now must go to conference committee. There, representatives from the House and Senate are expected to hammer out a single compromise measure, which then would have to pass both chambers before heading to the desk of Gov. Mary Fallin (R) for her signature into law.
However, Stevenson notes, it is likely that senators on the conference committee will flex their muscles and vote to strip Osborn’s amendment from the final version.
“We will not file suit if the bill goes forward as is,” says Stevenson. “But because we think there’s a very slim chance the Senate would accept any amendments, if they strip the amendment in conference, we’ve hired the biggest law firm in the state and would sue immediately.”
He also says that Freedom Oklahoma has been in contact with Fallin’s office, and there’s “a chance she would veto” the bill if it was sent to her without the House amendments.
Some proponents of the bill have argued the religious exemption for child placement agencies is essential to protecting the religious freedom of its employees. They often point to instances where organizations like Catholic Charities have stopped performing adoptions in some states after marriage equality was approved.
Stevenson says that Catholic Charities adopts about 4.4 children on average per year in Oklahoma.
“We’ve not had anybody asking for this bill, and even though it’s not a large number, they’re already performing adoptions in the state of Oklahoma,” he says of Catholic Charities. “So I don’t know why they’d stop all of a sudden” — particularly since Oklahoma still lacks any statewide laws prohibiting discrimination on sexual orientation or gender identity.
Opponents have been harshly critical of both the House and Senate versions of the bill, saying the legislation’s sole purpose is to discriminate, prioritizing personal religious beliefs over the best interest of children. They add that it would make it more difficult to place children in any home because it limits the number of prospective parents, and would particularly put at risk LGBTQ-identifying children, who could be placed with adults who might harm them or force them to be subjected to conversion therapy.
“This bill is heartless and un-American,” Zeke Stokes, the vice president of programs at GLAAD, said in a statement. “No qualified parent should be turned away from adoption or foster agencies simply because they are LGBTQ.”
“SB 1140 is a deeply discriminatory bill rooted in animus toward the LGBTQ community that would harm children in need and discriminate against loving families who want to open their hearts and homes,” added Chad Griffin, the president of the Human Rights Campaign. “We should be making it easier — not harder — for children to find loving homes, and limiting the pool of parents for discriminatory reasons harms the very children these lawmakers are entrusted to protect.
“If SB 1140 becomes law, it could prove catastrophic for Oklahoma’s economy and reputation,” said Griffin. “If it reaches the governor’s desk, HRC urges Governor Fallin to reject this dangerous legislation.”