Tennessee Gov. Bill Lee (R) has announced he’ll sign a bill into law that would allow adoption and foster care agencies to continue receiving taxpayer money even if they discriminate against same-sex couples and other prospective parents.
On the first day of their legislative session, Tennessee lawmakers passed the bill, claiming it was necessary to protect the religious liberty of faith-based child placement agencies.
The bill allows agencies to discriminate against prospective parents based on any number of characteristics, including marital history or status, religion, or sexual orientation, if placing children with certain parents would violate the agency’s written religious or moral convictions.
The bill also protects agencies from being sued, or losing tax benefits, grants, state contracts, or their license to operate, if they refuse to place children with certain adoptive or foster parents.
And it exempts agencies from having to refer those whom they reject to other agencies who might be more willing to work with them.
Lee’s communications director, Chris Walker, confirmed that Lee intends to sign the bill, after previously refraining from commenting because he said he had not read the bill.
Proponents of the bill argue that child placement agencies must be allowed to refuse to place children with certain couples — all while receiving taxpayer money — or else they will be forced to shutter their doors, leaving children in the lurch and stressing an already overburdened foster care system.
“This bill is solely about [religious] freedom,” Sen. Paul Rose (R-Covington), the bill’s chief sponsor, told NBC News.
Rose’s bill is nearly identical to a proposed rule from the Trump administration that seeks to repeal an Obama-era rule that prevented foster care agencies from receiving federal funds if they discriminated against LGBTQ parents or same-sex couples.
Rose said he introduced the bill to ensure that those protections are in place in Tennessee, just in case President Trump does not win re-election this year.
But Steven Dickerson (R-Nashville), the only Senate Republican to vote with Democrats against the bill, maintains that the measure will only limit the number of qualified families, thereby increasing the waiting period before children can be placed in more permanent and stable homes.
“I expect that waiting list to increase somewhat,” Dickerson told NBC News. “This will have a direct fiscal impact on the state, not to mention the humanitarian impact and emotional impact on those children who … will now be in a foster setting for a longer time.”
At least 10 other states have enacted similar legislation, often referred to as a conscience clause exemption. But one of those states, Michigan, agreed to settle a lawsuit brought against it by same-sex couples who alleged that the law was discriminatory.
As part of that settlement, the state agreed not to turn away qualified LGBTQ couples or individuals seeking to become parents.
Additionally, Virginia Democrats, who recently took over control of the commonwealth’s General Assembly, are considering a bill by Del. Mark Levine (D-Alexandria) that would repeal the conscience clause exemption bill signed into law by former Gov. Bob McDonnell (R) in 2013.
LGBTQ activists are understandably outraged at Lee’s announcement, warning that the state could see a backlash from businesses that may scuttle relocations or expansions in the state because they do not want to be seen as condoning anti-LGBTQ laws.
“LGBTQ consumers and allies support companies that support us, and GLAAD will be among organizations ready to hold companies strongly accountable for sitting idly by as LGBTQ Tennesseans are placed in harm’s way,” Sarah Kate Ellis, the president and CEO of the LGBTQ media advocacy organization GLAAD, said in a statement.
Ellis added: “This bill further legitimizes discriminatory practices against LGBTQ people and is one of several upcoming pieces of legislation that will define Tennessee as a state where LGBTQ citizens are second-class citizens.”
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