By Steve Kilar, September 2019 Issue.
There are more than 13,000 children in foster care in Arizona, according to the state’s Department of Child Safety. That’s a daunting number and one that demands all prospective foster and adoptive parents be treated with dignity and respect.
Fortunately, there is an Obama-era federal regulation in effect that says all foster and adoption agencies receiving federal funds cannot discriminate against people based on factors including age, disability, sex, race, national origin, religion, gender identity, or sexual orientation. That makes sense: an agency that receives public money should be required to serve the whole public.
But according to recent news reports, the Trump administration is considering rolling back these nondiscrimination protections or making religious agencies immune to them.
This is not surprising considering the myriad ways the Trump administration has acted to harm LGBTQ people but it’s disturbing, nonetheless. No otherwise eligible foster or adoptive parent should be dismissed because of their sexual orientation or gender identity. In the end, a rule allowing this kind of discrimination would harm kids in need of stable homes.
“Families who are rejected by an agency because of their faith or sexual orientation may not have other options in their area,” wrote Leslie Cooper, deputy director of the ACLU’s LGBT & HIV Project in a May blog post. “Even if they do, the sting and humiliation of discrimination may deter some from approaching other agencies to possibly face more discrimination.”
Several Arizona counties only have two or three agencies that license foster parents on behalf of the state. Many of the licensing agencies in Arizona are religious. If a nationwide rule allowing religious discrimination by child welfare agencies were approved, it would not be hard to imagine an Arizona where LGBTQ people in some parts of the state could not obtain a foster care license.
“When families are deterred from fostering, this means that more children will be placed in group homes, separated from siblings, and age out of foster care without ever being adopted,” noted Cooper, who was writing about a lawsuit that Lambda Legal and the ACLU filed against the Trump administration and South Carolina.
In January, the Trump administration granted South Carolina an exemption to the rules prohibiting discrimination in federally funded child welfare programs. South Carolina’s Department of Social Services had determined Miracle Hill Ministries, a foster care agency, “violated state and federal law by restricting eligibility to prospective foster parents who are evangelical Protestant Christians,” according to the lawsuit. The agency had refused to work with Jewish, Catholic, and LGBTQ people because they did not share or fit within the agency’s religious beliefs. The lawsuit aims to prove that the Trump administration and South Carolina are violating the Constitution by allowing agencies to use religious criteria to exclude would-be parents.
In March, the state of Michigan settled a similar lawsuit brought by the ACLU, agreeing to require all tax-funded child welfare agencies to work with LGBTQ people. The same-sex couple who filed the case had been turned away by two religiously affiliated child welfare agencies that provided state-contracted services.
“Freedom of religion is absolutely important in our society, but that should not give anyone the right to impose their beliefs on a child seeking a forever home or families like ours who are coming forward to care for them,” the Michigan couple, Kristy and Dana Dumont, wrote in an op-ed for Vice in June 2018.
When a religious agency that is doing work on behalf of the government declines to serve someone because that person is LGBTQ, practices a different faith, or is not religious at all, that’s not religious liberty. It’s state-sponsored discrimination.
The Every Child Deserves a Family Act would preserve the child welfare nondiscrimination regulations in statute. The bill, which was reintroduced in June, also proposes banning conversion therapy for children involved with federally funded child welfare services.
Rep. John Lewis of Georgia, the civil rights pioneer, and Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand of New York are the primary sponsors of the current bill, which was first introduced in 2009. Reps. Ruben Gallego, Raúl Grijalva, and Ann Kirkpatrick are the only members of Arizona’s congressional delegation cosponsoring the 2019 version.
A guiding principle of U.S. child welfare law is that decisions should be made “in the best interest” of a child. The Trump administration’s attempts to restrict the number of eligible foster and adoptive families clearly doesn’t fit that standard.
Although passage of the Every Child Deserves a Family Act (H.R.3114 and S.1791) is unlikely during the current Congress, our elected leaders need to hear from constitutes who support it, so there’s momentum for the bill’s eventual passage. Contact your members of Congress and tell them you support this proposal, which would ensure kids in the child welfare system have the best opportunity to join a loving home.