State legislatures in both Kansas and Oklahoma passed bills last Thursday (Senate Bill 284 in Kansas and Senate Bill 1140 in Oklahoma) that would allow state-funded child-placing agencies to use religion to justify denying children homes and discriminating against prospective parents.
Both bills would allow child-placing agencies to refuse to perform, assist or participate in any child placement in the name of religion. That means agencies that receive state funding could discriminate against prospective adoptive and foster parents because they are a same-sex couple, are interfaith, were previously divorced or are a different faith than the agency. Agencies would be able to ignore the best interest of the child – the bedrock standard for placing children.
Although similar bills were considered in several states across the country this year, most didn’t make it very far. Kansas and Oklahoma are the exception and both bills passed during the last hours of the session in each state. In both states, the legislatures considered amendments and compromises that would have reduced the harm these bills will inflict. But in the end, proponents of discrimination won out – and both of these bills, in their worst forms, now move to the governors of each state.
One of the most troubling aspects of SB 1140, as introduced, was that it permitted taxpayer dollars to fund discrimination. Members of the Oklahoma House recognized this problem and amended the bill so that it only applied to child-placement agencies that accepted neither state nor federal funds. The sponsor of the amendment, Republican Leslie Osborn explained, “if you are using state and federal dollars, I believe in the separation of church and state, so this simply says you may do whatever you want as long as you're not receiving federal and state funds.”
The Senate, however, rejected the House amendment and, on the very last day of the Oklahoma session, the bill ended up back on the desks of legislators in its original form – the bill again allows taxpayer-funded organizations to discriminate in the name of religion against potential parents. Many members of the House opposed the bill in this form, but House leadership used complicated procedural rules to deny any debate on the bill, even threatening to remove House members from the floor who objected to the troubling process.
After the vote, Rep. Cory Williams (D-Stillwater) tweeted, “The abomination of process & justice in the OK House of Reps makes me weep for democracy. The priorities of bigotry and hate, under the guise of religious freedom, are truly heartbreaking.”
Gov. Mary Fallin (R) has not yet said whether she will sign or veto the bill. If you live in Oklahoma, tell her to veto the bill.
In March, the Kansas Senate amended an adoption bill that contained long-needed updates to Kansas adoption law. The amendment would allow taxpayer-funded child-placement agencies to apply a religious test on potential adoptive or foster parents. Like in Oklahoma, we thought legislators might see the light and avoid using the bill to allow religion to discriminate, and members of the House did: The House opposed the harmful amendment, stripped the language and returned the bill to the Senate. But this good development didn’t last. Senate supporters of the bill wanted to keep the discriminatory language.
The Senate’s move caused faith leaders and organizations to take a vocal stand against the bill. More than 50 Kansas faith leaders and organizations signed a letter to Kansas lawmakers urging them to reject the bill because it allows taxpayer-funded discrimination. They wrote that “permitting taxpayer dollars to subsidize discriminatory practices such as this will hurt children in need of loving and supportive homes.”
This letter changed the conversation around this bill and House leadership had to use procedural moves in order to pass it. In fact, when the bill returned to the House floor (cloaked under a new number even), some members weren’t even sure whether the adoption language was in the new bill.
And like in Oklahoma, Kansas didn’t pass the bill until the last minutes of their legislative session. The lineup of speakers meant the House didn’t pass the bill until 11 p.m. local time – a time when most Kansans have gone to sleep. The Senate seemed to agree that such a bill could only be passed when no one is watching, because it voted at 1:15 a.m., rather than waiting until the morning.
In the end, it is the children of Kansas who will lose. Speaking in opposition to the bill, Rep. Jarrod Ousley (D-Merriam) said, “This bill...open[s] the door for tax dollars to be used for discrimination.” He ended his speech by adding, “It’s my fear that this bill puts child placement agencies’ sincerely held religious beliefs over the best interests of the child.”
Republican Gov. Jeff Colyer has said he will sign the bill, but you can add your voice to tell him to veto SB 284 and put children first.