The very first thing the Tennessee Senate did when it reconvened last week was pass a bill to allow discrimination that would harm children in foster care. HB 836, passed by the House last year, would authorize taxpayer-funded foster care agencies to turn away couples seeking to foster or adopt children because they are LGBTQ or the “wrong” religion. 

Republican Gov. Bill Lee said he intends to sign this harmful bill (even telling one news outlet that he already had). If he does, the law would undermine the bedrock child welfare standard that requires these foster care agencies to provide services based solely on what is in the best interest of the child. He will be hurting kids in need of loving homes and the families that want to provide for them.

Across the country, there are more than 111,000 children in care who are eligible for adoption; there are nearly 9,000 kids in foster care just in Tennessee. Many states already face a shortage of families willing to take care of these kids. By allowing taxpayer-funded agencies to refuse to work with families that are a different religion or LGBTQ, HB 836 would only compound that problem. Because when an agency refuses to work with qualified parents, children in care face increased wait times, and the number of youth leaving care without finding their forever family increases.

Our client, Aimee Maddonna, knows the harm these bills can cause. Aimee, a Catholic mother of three, grew up in a family that provided a home for countless children in foster care. She tried to work with Miracle Hill Ministries, a government-funded foster care agency. Miracle Hill initially told her that her family was a great fit to work with kids. But after Aimee told Miracle Hill that she is Catholic, she was turned away because Miracle Hill only works with people who are evangelical Protestants (the agency has since said it will consider Catholics who will sign the agency’s statement of faith, which doesn’t align with Aimee’s beliefs). That’s why, with our help, Aimee is suing her home state of South Carolina and the federal government to stop these discriminatory policies.

Aimee isn’t alone in facing discrimination. Lydia Currie also reached out to Miracle Hill so that she and her husband could adopt, but she was turned away because she is Jewish. Beth Lesser, who is also Jewish, attended a three-day training to learn more about mentoring children in care but was told on the last day that non-Protestants were not welcome.

If Tennessee’s bill becomes law, it’s only a matter of time before this kind of religious discrimination could happen in the state. HB 836 undermines religious freedom, which gives Americans the right to believe, or not, as they choose, but it does not give anyone the right to use their religious beliefs to discriminate against kids and families. That’s especially true when organizations, like these adoption and foster care agencies, get public funding to provide a service on behalf of the government. No taxpayer-funded organization should be able to use religion to justify refusing to place them in a safe and happy family because of the religion of the prospective parents.

By signing this bill, Gov. Lee would put the religious beliefs of child-placing agencies ahead of the best interests of the children whom the agencies contract with the state to serve. Instead, he should put kids first. There’s still time.

P.S. This bill is part of Project Blitz, a nefarious political movement that is sweeping through state legislatures across the country with an agenda aimed at establishing the U.S. as a Christian nation. Project Blitz has the goal of passing an increasingly ambitious set of state laws to incrementally tear down the separation of religion and government, promote prayer in public schools and misuse religious freedom to justify discrimination. AU and allies are tracking Project Blitz and working to block it from spreading. Join us!