Virginia adding ‘conscience clause’ to adoption laws

February 7, 2012

Virginia will likely become the second state in the nation — after North Dakota — to allow private adoption agencies to turn away parents based on sexual orientation or religious and moral beliefs.

The General Assembly is considering a measure that would add a “conscience clause’’ to Virginia law that would allow state-funded, faith-based agencies to choose which parents are suitable for adoption based on the agencies’ beliefs.

Daniel Gri and James Abbott, who adopted two sons in California, say that through the proposed guidelines their adopted home of Virginia is further hampering gay people from adopting.

“It makes it seem like it’s not about sexual orientation,” said Gri, who lives in Oakton. “That’s a technique anti-gay organizations use.’’

But supporters of the legislation say it would protect religious freedom by ­allowing birth parents to choose an agency — and as a result, adoptive parents — who adhere to their religious beliefs.

“This measure will chisel into law the principle that people of faith can adhere to their convictions without fear of reprisal from those who would discriminate against their religious beliefs regarding how we should raise our children,” said House Deputy Majority Leader C. Todd Gilbert(R-Shenandoah).

The legislation’s fate became clear after Republicans took control of the state Senate and gained an even heftier majority in the House. The House voted overwhelmingly to pass the measure last week, largely along party lines, while the Senate is expected to vote this week.

Gov. Robert F. McDonnell (R) is expected to sign the legislation. He has repeatedly said that faith-based organizations should be able to make their own policies.

Virginia has 77 private agencies, 16 of them faith-based. They placed 557 of the state’s 2,503 adoptions last year, according to state figures. In total, the agencies and 120 local social services departments received $144 million in state and federal funds for child placement last year.

Who can adopt, and who can’t

The bill does not change who can adopt. State law does not allow unmarried couples — homosexual or heterosexual — to adopt. But it is possible for single people, including gays, to adopt.

For gay-rights group Equality Virginia, the ACLU and others, the legislation merely perpetuates discrimination.

“Let’s just speak the truth and tell it like it is,’’ Del. David L. Englin (D-Alexandria) said. “This legislation is about ensuring that foster placement agencies that do not want to place children . . . with same-sex couples are able to do that.’’

Democrats, outgunned in the newly Republican-controlled legislature, have unsuccessfully tried to amend the legislation and pass their own bill, which would have banned discrimination by agencies that receive state funds. Nine states prohibit discrimination in adoption.

“Any bill that sanctions discrimination is unfortunate and misguided,’’ said Sen. A. Donald McEachin (D-Henrico), who attempted to amend the bill last week.

The bill would prohibit the state from rejecting or revoking agencies’ licenses because they turn away prospective parents. Currently, about 4,407 children are in foster care in Virginia. About 1,300 of them have a goal of adoption.

Supporters of the measure say it merely puts into law a standing practice that has been in place in Virginia for decades.

“A majority of Virginians recognize that these agencies are critical to providing the best possible outcomes for children,’’ said Victoria Cobb, president of the Family Foundation. “This legislation . . . allows these important agencies to continue doing the vital work they’ve been doing for decades.’’

But opponents say the bill goes far beyond just faith-based agencies to all private agencies, far beyond just adoption to foster care and far beyond religious reasons to moral reasons.

“This is establishing a whole lot of new precedent that we have not had before or seen before,’’ said Claire Guthrie Gastanaga, general counsel to Equality Virginia and a former chief deputy attorney general.

The bill codifies a decision by the State Board of Social Services last year to allow faith-based organizations to reject prospective parents based on gender, age, religion, disability, sexual orientation and family status. The federal government protects against discrimination based on race, color or national origin.

The proposed regulations, part of a massive overhaul of adoption rules, are to take effect May 1.

‘Focus’ on the child

“Our focus is really on the best placement of the child,’’ Virginia Social Services Commissioner Martin Brown said.

About 2,279 same-sex couples are raising about 4,558 children in Virginia, according to the Family Equality Council, a gay-rights organization. Most were adopted in Virginia, allowing only one parent to have custody.

Fifty-five percent of Virginians say that gay couples should be able to legally adopt children, according to a Washington Post poll released last year.

Fifty-nine percent of Virginians say that state-run agencies should not ban prospective parents based on sexual orientation, while 35 percent say they should, according to a Quinnipiac University poll, also released last year. But that same poll indicates that Virginians are split on whether church agencies should be able to do that — 48 percent to 45 percent.

“Virginians expect any public agency or agency licensed by Virginia to treat all the state’s citizens fairly and justly and serve their best interests,’’ the Family Equality Council said in a statement.

But Del. Robert G. Marshall (R-Prince William), who does not think single or gay people should be allowed to adopt, said the law is needed so that faith-based organizations do not close down, as they have in other states, including Massachusetts.

“These agencies should be able to practice the ethical views of their organizations,’’ said Marshall, who adopted three children with his wife through Catholic Charities.

Gri and Abbott, legally married in California, adopted their children — Caleb, 14, and Alfred, 11, — through government foster care, not a private agency. They grew up with religion and are active in a church in the District.

But while they both say they are more than likely to vote for conservative candidates because of their pro-business, low-regulation approach, they believe legislators may be wrong on this issue.

“I think definitely this law is not in the best interest of the children,’’ Gri said.

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