May 2018 Church & State Magazine | Cover Story

Kris Williams is proof that LGBTQ people can be great foster and adoptive parents. In fact, they can be ideal parents because they have often lived through struggles that allow them to understand and relate to children who have experienced traumas and are in need of loving homes.

The Bethany, Okla., woman said her experiences as a provider of social services, a lesbian and a person of faith all shaped her ability to mother her 11-year-old son, Ozzy, whom she adopted about five years ago.

“Studies have shown that LGBTQ families raise children who are as healthy and happy as children from non-LGBT homes,” said Williams during a March 12 press conference in Oklahoma.

“My child and I have [a] connection which requires great character and insight as a parent, as many children from adoption come from hard places,” Williams said. “Raising a child from trauma is no easy feat. I have found that my experience as a member of the LGBTQ community is an asset in relating to my child’s unique story.”

But Oklahoma is one of the several states where legislators are working on bills to allow taxpayer-funded adoption and foster care agencies to cite religion as justification to discriminate against prospective LGBTQ parents like Williams.

Media Matters, a progressive watch- dog group, reported in March that Alliance Defending Freedom, a large Religious Right legal group, has been working “to pass and defend legislation in at least five states that allows child welfare agencies to discriminate against LGBTQ people, among others, in adoption and foster care.”

While these bills were primarily crafted to discriminate against LGBTQ families, the legislation also could allow agencies to turn away couples who are interfaith, interracial, have previously been divorced or have different religious beliefs from any given agency.

In Oklahoma, Sen. Greg Treat (R-Ok­lahoma City) in February proposed Senate Bill 1140, which would give state-funded child-placing agencies the right to refuse to work with foster and adoptive parents who “violate the agency’s written religious or moral convictions or policies.” The bill would explicitly prevent the state from denying contracts or funding to agencies that discriminate in the name of religion.

Treat cited the same argument that has been used in other states to try to justify his proposal: that it would encourage more faith-based organizations to come forward to assist the state with child placement, which he said would increase the number of placements.

But these bills will have the exact opposite effect: Fewer families will be able to adopt or foster children, and the already burgeoning number of children waiting for safe, loving homes will continue to grow.

As of last fall, there were about 430,000 children in foster care in America, according to the Movement Advancement Program (MAP), a progressive think tank. MAP noted that same-sex couples are four times more likely than married heterosexual couples to adopt children and six times more likely to raise foster children.

The reality is that there are plenty of faith-based child-placement pro­viders already contracting with states.

“There is no shortage of agencies doing this work in Oklahoma,” said Troy Stevenson, executive director of the LGBTQ advocacy group Freedom Oklahoma. “There is a shortage of homes for kids to be placed in, and this legislation hurts that.”

Seven states currently allow child-placement agencies to cite religious beliefs as an excuse to discriminate, according to MAP. Alabama, South Dak­ota and Texas pas­sed similar laws last year, joining Michigan, Mississippi, North Dakota and Virginia. MAP estimated that nearly 20 percent of American children waiting to be adopted live in these seven states.

Stevenson said Michigan, North Dakota and Virginia have seen “adoption rates go down dramatically.” Lawsuits over these adoption policies are pending in both Michigan and North Dakota; the plaintiffs include two same-sex couples and an engaged heterosexual couple who were all turned away by faith-based adoption agencies, as well as a woman whose experience as a foster parent and having a foster father who was an atheist informs her objections to the law.

The Daily Beast reported in January that legislation encouraging discrimination against parents seeking to adopt is part of a trend of anti-LGBTQ bills that are becoming more targeted. The move to focus legislation on single issues is in response to the political and economic backlash generated by bills like North Carolina’s House Bill 2 anti-transgender bathroom ban in 2016 and the broad Religious Freedom Res­tora­tion Act that could allow religion to be used to discriminate that was passed in 2015 by Indiana (then governed by Vice President Mike Pence).

Discriminatory adoption bills were proposed in at least six states last year; half of them passed. Similar bills were introduced this year in two of the states where they failed last year – Georgia and Oklahoma.

Senate Bill 375, this year’s adoption bill in Georgia, met with wide­spread outrage – similar to the outcry generated two years ago by a proposed First Amendment Defense Act (FADA) that would have permitted businesses, nonprofits and individuals to use religion to justify discrimination.

Once again, the business community, including the Georgia Chamber of Commerce, the Metro Atlanta Cham­ber and Atlanta-based Coca-Cola and Delta, strongly opposed the anti-LGBTQ bill.

“Legislation that sanctions discrimination and limits options for children in need of a permanent home takes us further away from our goal of attracting investments that improve the lives of Georgia families,” Katie Kirkpatrick, chief policy officer at Metro Atlanta Chamber, a group that represents business interests in the region, said in a statement.

Variety magazine noted prominent actors and producers – people involved in the movie and television industry that accounted for $9.5 billion in economic activity in Georgia last year – also spoke out against the bill.

Ben Wexler, a writer and producer on “The Grinder” and “Arrested Development,” tweeted that filmmakers should boycott working in the state if the bill passed: “To my fellow show­runners: if this dumb bill becomes law, let’s be done filming television shows in Georgia.” His tweet was liked by more than 67,000 people and shared nearly 18,000 times.

Americans United supporters in Georgia contacted their legislators to voice their objections, and AU Legislative Director Maggie Garrett wrote a memo outlining the harmful practices the bill would allow agencies to follow:

  • It would allow agencies to refuse to serve a child because he is gay, belongs to the “wrong” religion or is the “wrong” gender or race – a rejection that would compound the already difficult circumstances faced by children in care.  
  • It would discriminate against qualified prospective parents, including relatives – such as a child’s aunt who has been divorced, has used birth control or is married to someone of the same sex. Aside from denying the dignity of the parents, this would increase both wait times for children in care and the number of kids leaving care without finding permanent homes.  
  • It would permit agencies to refuse to provide a child with needed services, such as denying mental health counseling or health care to a child who was a victim of sexual or other types of abuse because the pro­vider’s religion rejects psychiatric or other treatment.

“Providers who accept taxpayer dollars to serve these children must put the best interest of the children – not their own religious beliefs – first,” Garrett wrote.

Ultimately, SB 375 died when the Georgia House failed to vote on the measure before the legislative session ended in late March. Although the Senate approved the measure, state House Judiciary Chairman Wendell Willard (R-Sandy Springs) said he wouldn’t bring up the bill for a hearing or a vote, reported the Atlanta Journal-Constitution.

“It’s not like we need to have this,” Willard said. “It’s a solution looking for a problem.”

A discriminatory adoption bill never gained traction and died in the Florida legislature this spring, but at Church & State’s press time, similar bills still remained active in Kansas and Oklahoma.

Several legislative efforts to create religious exemptions for child-placement agencies were afoot in Kansas – including two identical bills proposed in the House and Senate.

During a March 21 Kansas House committee hearing, more than a dozen people testified or submitted written testimony in opposition to the legislation. Among the objectors was Janice Kopper of Wichita. Kopper said she and her wife Janet Boyce have adopted seven children with special needs and served as foster parents to 16 children.

“We chose to take kids that tend to have difficulties finding homes,” Kopper wrote to the committee. “This has made for a uniquely wonderful family that we wouldn’t trade for anything. Our family exists out of a love for God, each other, and genuine caring and respect for others.”

Though the standalone bills did not advance out of committee, similar discriminatory language was added to House Bill 2481, a broader bill about adoption policies. The Senate added a religious exemption amend­ment a week after Kopper’s testimony, but the state House narrowly voted it down the same day.

 “It’s sick discrimination,” said Sen. Barbara Bollier (R-Mission Hills), according to The Wichita Eagle. “And these are people [prospective parents] who can love and adopt children and are doing so. So to say it is not discriminatory, I beg to differ.”

At press time, a joint legislative committee was trying to work out a compromise on the competing versions of HB 2481.

The Eagle reported that about 35 percent of attorneys who work in Kansas’ child-welfare system said gay and lesbian prospective parents are not treated the same as other parents, according to a survey released last year by state auditors.

Gina Meier-Hummel, secretary of the Kansas Department for Children and Families, in December said she took a “personal interest” in the claims of discrimination and would have “zero tolerance” for violations of the law. Yet, perplexingly, she supported the general adoption bill with the discriminatory language.

Oklahoma’s SB 1140 adoption bill overwhelmingly passed the state Senate on March 13 in a 35-9 vote. At press time it was being considered by the state House.

AU’s State Legislative Counsel Nik Nartowicz on April 4 sent a letter to the House Judiciary Committee, urging members to oppose the bill because it is unconstitutional, harmful and unnecessary.

“Freedom of religion is a fundamental American value that is protected by the U.S. and Oklahoma Constitutions. It allows all of us the freedom to believe or not as we see fit, but it does not allow anyone to use religion as an excuse to harm or take away the rights of others,” Nartowicz wrote. “Religion is no justification for denying children homes and discriminating against prospective parents.

“Child-placing agencies must provide services based solely on what is in the best interest of the child. SB 1140, however, undermines this bed­rock child welfare standard by put­ting the religious beliefs of agencies ahead of the best interests of the children whom the agencies contract with the state to serve,” Nartowicz added. “This bill would allow state-funded child-placing agencies to deny children the loving, stable, and permanent homes they deserve.”

The Rev. Lori Walke, a pastor at May­flower Congregational United Church of Christ in Oklahoma City, joined the Freedom Oklahoma press conference on March 12 to counter arguments that the bill would advance religious freedom.

“Speaking as a faith leader, these measures should frighten Oklaho­mans who often feel called by faith to open their homes to provide stability and opportunity to our at-risk youth. These measures do not represent fair-minded, faithful Oklahomans,” she said. “People who have been previously divorced, interfaith couples, LGBTQ persons and couples and interracial couples are just a few examples of the people who could be prevented from providing safe and loving homes in the name of religious freedom.”

In many states, LGBTQ couples who want to adopt or foster children must overcome misinformation campaigns launched by Religious Right groups. The American Family Association has a page on its website titled “The Uncensored Truth About Homosexual Adoption,” which cites a single, since-debunked 2012 study by a researcher purporting to show that children raised by same-sex couples have worse outcomes than those raised by opposite-sex couples. Groups like the Family Research Council, Focus on the Family and others have cited the same study in attempting to block same-sex couples from adopting or fostering children. 

In fact, numerous studies have shown that children raised by same-sex parents have similar or better outcomes as children raised by heterosexual parents. The Washington Post in 2014 reported on research by the University of Melbourne that found the children of same-sex families scored the same or slightly higher than children from the general population in several health categories. The same article referenced an American Academy of Pediatrics report that analyzed three decades of data and found that children raised by gay and lesbian parents showed resilience “with regard to social, psychological and sexual health.”

Kris Williams, the adoptive mom, social services provider and lesbian, is among those working to dispel the Religious Right’s false claims about same-sex parenting.

“Senate Bill 1140 insults my family, but worse, it will affect our children of Oklahoma, their chance for success, for family and for happiness,” she said. “I’m heartbroken, both as a mother and as a professional, that any adult would withhold family from Oklahoma children.

“I wrote [my remarks] and read this to my child this morning and he said a couple of things: ‘Mom, I’m proud of you. And please say my name so everybody knows who my mom is.’ So, in that respect, I want to say, ‘Ozzy, I’m proud to be your mother. And Mama and Mommy are both proud to have you in our lives.’”