The House of Delegates approved Delegate Mark Levine’s (D-Arlington) HB 1932 on Wednesday in a 53 to 43 vote. The bill would remove the child-placement conscience clause which protects child-placement agencies from being forced to place children where it would violate the agency’s moral or religious convictions. Supporters of the bill say it ends discrimination currently protected by the Commonwealth, but Catholic adoption agencies and Republican legislators warn that removing the protection could effectively eliminate thousands of potential homes for children in foster care and adoption programs. The bill is now in committee in the Senate.
“My bill is about repealing required government-funded religious discrimination. If my bill becomes law, Virginia can continue to fund any child placement agency it wants to. But it no longer requires it,” Levine told The Virginia Star in an email.
Some religious agencies object to placing children in homes with same-sex couples. The conscience clause prevents those agencies from being denied licenses or state grants for not participating in those placements.
“If a religious agency wanted to refuse to give kids to good Catholic families, for example, I think Virginia should have the right to refuse to fund that agency. Current law would require taxpayer funding of this anti-Catholic bigotry. HB 1932 would remove that requirement,” Levine said.
He added, “The vast, vast majority of religious and secular child placement organizations in Virginia want what’s best for kids. They put the kids’ needs first, in accordance with best practices in child welfare. I think it’s cruel to require kids age out of foster homes when a loving good family wants to adopt them and make them permanently part of their family.”
Delegate Emily Brewer (R-Suffolk), who was adopted, said, “If you’re a faith-based child placement agency, say for instance like Catholic Charities, or organizations that think alike, this would basically neuter [your] ability to participate in adopt and childcare placement and be able to have access to grants, or state programs.”
Brewer said, “These organizations are huge, key stakeholders in making sure that we get kids into loving homes and a safe environment. And repealing this is going to have a devastating affect on our ability to make sure that we have enough homes for children that are in tough situations.”
In 2011, Virginia’s Board of Social Services had a months-long debate over ending licensure for some faith-based child-placement agencies, according to a Catholic Charities press release provided to The Star by Virginia Catholic Conference Executive Director Jeff Caruso.
“It was only after this very serious attempt to end our licensure – and concern there could well be future attempts like it – that we asked the General Assembly to enact the conscience protection law in 2012, simply to preserve our ability to participate in the child welfare system,” the release states.
“[Delegate Todd Gilbert (R-Shenandoah)] had put a conscience clause in there that essentially said we weren’t going to tell a religious organization that they essentially had to recommend an adoption to an environment which directly violated their own religious principles,” Delegate Nick Freitas (R-Culpeper) told The Star.
The 2012 bill passed in the Republican-controlled General Assembly with support from two Democrats, according to The Richmond Times-Dispatch.
Since then, Democratic legislators have launched multiple attempts to repeal the clause.
Freitas said, “The whole debate on this for years with respect to whether or not homosexual couples can adopt, the argument that was previously made was, ‘Well look, if it’s a loving family, if it’s a secure home, why shouldn’t they be allowed to adopt children as well?'”
“The whole argument was, ‘All hands on deck,'” Freitas said. “Now they’re coming back with their own majority, and they’re saying, ‘Now we want to exclude various groups because they don’t share the majority party’s opinion with respect to families.”
In 2020, Levine sponsored a similar bill that was killed in committee in the Democrat-controlled legislature. According to The Washington Blade, when that bill was considered, Mary Rohmiller, co-director of state policy and policy counsel for Family Equality, testified at the time, “This bill does not require any agency to close its doors.”
She said of the 2020 bill, “All agencies that perform child care services in this state are appreciated and valued. The faith-based providers are also included in that and we hope that they do choose to stay in the Commonwealth.”
But the Catholic Charities release states, “This law is the shield that ensures our participation. For the past nine years, it has ensured that a diverse range of providers can serve a diverse range of children and prospective parents.”
Catholic Charities has stopped child-placement operations in other states that have required the agencies to place children in homes with same-sex couples, according to Catholic Online. The Catholic Charities release argues that keeping the conscience clause doesn’t harm anyone; there are other child-placement agencies that do not have the same religious beliefs. According to a data sheet from Free to Foster, Massachusetts lost 2,000 families in the foster care system between 2012 and 2017 after faith-based agencies left the system.
“When Illinois repealed a very similar law, they lost over 1,600 foster care homes,” Brewer said. “This has already happened in Philadelphia, Boston, and other places across the states. It absolutely eliminates potential homes for children to be placed in foster care.”
According to child-placement agency UMFS, in 2020 there were more than 1,700 children in foster care waiting for adoptive families in 2020, and over 5,500 children total in the system. 19 percent of teens age out of the system at age 18, and 20 percent of teens who age out become homeless.
“Virginia is second to last of the 50 states when it comes to achieving permanency for youth in the foster care system. Our state needs all hands on deck and the widest possible net of families,” the Catholic Charities release states.
Brewer said, “I’m the co-chair of the Foster Care Caucus of Virginia, and over the past couple of years we have really worked with creating kinship care programs regarding children placement and all of these different pieces of legislation to really empower folks to offer kinship care or foster care to Virginia’s children, and the most frustrating part is the fact that we’re going to be taking homes potentially out of the healthcare system.”
She said, “We’re doing the children of Virginia a disservice.”
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