The Freedom From Religion Foundation and several other groups representing secular values have signed a letter to state lawmakers opposing pending or passed laws that allow religious discrimination in adoption and foster care.
Legislation to allow state-licensed child welfare agencies to discriminate and refuse to provide services that collide with their religious beliefs is being considered or has been signed into law in Alabama, Kansas, Michigan, Mississippi, North Dakota, Oklahoma, South Carolina, South Dakota, Texas and Virginia. This means these publicly funded agencies would be allowed to make foster youth placements based on bigoted spiritual ideologies.
Potential discriminatory acts approved by such legislation include denial of foster care or adoption opportunities to LGBTQ families, single mothers, atheists or any other group marginalized by the religious organization. These bills would also allow a religious child welfare organization to use discriminatory assistance or counseling practices — to the detriment of abused LGBTQ children.
“Religious-based discrimination in child welfare services potentially affects over a quarter of Americans, with the greatest negative impact on foster youth,” write the secular groups. “Rather than expanding the options available to foster youth, this exclusionary legislation limits the number of homes available to foster children, thereby reducing the number of permanent placements of foster children.”
This legislation could potentially affect the nearly 25 percent of American adults who are religiously unaffiliated and the estimated 2 million LGBTQ adults who are interested in adopting children in the United States. The groups point out that taxpayers should not be forced to financially support such state-sanctioned discrimination — particularly when it will undermine the integrity of the child welfare system.
And some of the legislation being considered would not only discriminate against the would-be parents, but the youth themselves. Legislation in South Carolina, for example, would allow agencies to refuse to place children after discovering they are atheists, members of a minority religion or part of the LGBTQ community.
Studies show that more than one-third of youth ages 13-18 are nonreligious. Additionally, there is a disproportionately high number of LGBTQ youth in foster care, with many having been abandoned by their families due to their sexual orientation or gender identity. Since they're members of a group that already experiences higher than average instances of mistreatment and discrimination, preventing placement in the foster care system will strike a significant blow to these foster children’s personal identity and self-worth.
Possibly the worst of these bills comes out of Texas where the legislation prohibits any state action against a service provider or foster parent who declines to provide proper health care — such as contraceptives or abortion services — on the basis of religious belief, or who forces the child to take part in religious education and activities. This exemption may potentially allow providers to force foster youth to undergo abusive practices such as conversion therapy, which fallaciously claims to change a person’s sexual orientation.
Furthermore, the secular groups highlight that allowing foster and adoption placement agencies to discriminate based on their religious beliefs with government funds violates the U.S. Constitution. These types of discriminatory laws wrongly burden the applicant parents and the foster youth, both of whom are third-party beneficiaries of these programs. These religious exemptions would enable entities receiving taxpayer funding to refuse to provide critical child welfare services on the basis of religious objections. This would harm third parties in violation of the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment, which prohibits religious accommodations or exemptions that would harm third parties.
Ultimately, the health and care of a child should be the only factor that a child welfare agency and its employees take into consideration — not advancing the bigoted agendas of state contractors promoting dogma at the expense of children in need.
“When taxpayer funds are used to assist in the placement of foster children, those funds should be spent ensuring that children are placed in loving, safe, nurturing environments as soon as possible,” write the secular groups. “The ability to love and care for a child is not limited to people who hold one particular faith or people who hold religious faith in general.”
The groups are calling for the discriminatory measures to be rejected or repealed in each state in which they have been proposed or passed.
The letter was signed by the Freedom From Religion Foundation, American Atheists, the American Humanist Association, the Center for Inquiry, the Secular Coalition for America and the Secular Student Alliance.
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