Yesterday the Judiciary Committee of the Tennessee House of Representatives voted 16-8 to approve an unfortunate piece of legislation that could end up hurting children in foster care – and they did it in the name of “religious freedom.”
The bill, HB 836, seeks to allow taxpayer-funded child-placement agencies to refuse to work with people they deem to be the “wrong” religion. Similar bills are pending in other states, and all are problematic.
Remember, we’re talking about publicly funded agencies here. Some of these groups may have religious ties, but they’re acting on behalf of the state to take care of vulnerable children, which means they must be willing to serve everyone. Yet under the Tennessee bill, these agencies would be allowed to refuse to serve children in need or shut the door on prospective foster parents – for no other reason than their religious beliefs.
In a March 19 letter to the committee, Nik Nartowicz, state policy counsel for Americans United, writing on behalf of AU’s Tennessee members and chapters, asked the committee to reject the legislation.
“The bill would … allow agencies to turn away qualified prospective parents who want to provide a loving, stable home for children in care,” Nartowicz observed. “When an agency refuses to work with qualified parents, children in care are harmed. They face increased wait times, and the number of youth leaving care without finding their forever family increases. This also harms the human dignity of parents who simply want to help children in care.”
Americans United has similar concerns about a nearly identical bill pending in Arkansas. SB 352 also seeks to allow taxpayer-funded child-welfare agencies to put their religious beliefs ahead of the best interest of children.
“We appreciate the important role religiously affiliated institutions historically have played in partnership with the government to provide foster care services,” Nartowicz wrote in a letter to Arkansas lawmakers. “Effective government collaboration with faith-based groups, however, has not and does not require the sanctioning of discrimination with taxpayer funds. No taxpayer-funded organization should be able to use religion to justify refusing to place a child in a safe and happy family because of the religion of the prospective parents.”
In both letters, Nartowicz mentioned the case of Aimee Maddonna, a South Carolina woman who wanted to volunteer to help foster children. She and her family were turned away by a taxpayer-funded agency called Miracle Hill Ministries because they are the “wrong” religion. The Maddonna family is Catholic, and Miracle Hill says it will work only with evangelical Protestants.
Such blatant discrimination would normally be illegal in a tax-funded program, but Miracle Hill sought and received an exemption from the Trump administration allowing it to discriminate on the basis of religion. That’s just not right, and Americans United is suing the government on Maddonna’s behalf.
Children in foster care need loving homes. State officials should do all they can to help kids in need find them. Given that, policies that promote religious discrimination aren’t just counter-productive and likely illegal – they’re also cruel.