RICHMOND — Despite emotional pleas by gay-rights groups, a state board overwhelmingly voted late Wednesday to continue a practice that some argue allows faith-based organizations in Virginia to discriminate in adoptions.
The State Board of Social Services’s 7 to 2 vote came after a slew of faith-based groups and adoption agencies insisted that they be able to screen prospective parents on religious or moral beliefs.
“Today, the State Board of Social Services told the 1,300 children already waiting for a loving, forever home that they’ll have to wait longer,” said Joe Solmonese, president of the Human Rights Campaign, a national gay-rights organization.
The proposed regulations, part of a massive overhaul of adoption rules, would have added protections on the basis of sexual orientation, gender, age, religion, political beliefs, disability and family status. The current rules follow federal law banning discrimination based on national origin, race and color.
“Its broad language would place an undue and unconstitutional burden on private faith-based child placing agencies by forcing us to compromise our religious beliefs in order to maintain our license to operate,” said Andrew Brown of America World Adoption, a Christian agency that processes 400 adoptions a year.
Virginia is one of 34 states where only single men and women and married couples can adopt, according to the American Academy of Adoption Attorneys.
Lawmakers and activists have disagreed about whether the proposed regulations would have allowed other classes, including unmarried couples — heterosexual or homosexual — to adopt.
But Lynne Williams, director of state licensing for the Department of Social Services, told board members that unmarried couples would not have been able to adopt even if the original proposed regulations had passed.
About 3,330 same-sex couples are raising about 6,700 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.
Lawrence Webb and Clifton Taylor, who live in Falls Church, are considering moving out of state to adopt a child when they are ready to raise children.
“It would be a tough decision to make,” said Webb, 36, a Falls Church City Council member and assistant dean of admissions at the University of Mary Washington. “But starting a family would take precedent.”
“It should be all about a child — I don’t believe someone should tell me that I can’t,” Taylor, 31, a government contractor in the District, said.
The board, which has five Democratic appointees, voted after receiving advice last week from Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli II (R) and Social Services CommissionerMartin Brown, an appointee of Gov. Robert F. McDonnell’s (R). All three opposed the proposed changes.
Cuccinelli’s office told members in a memo that the proposal “does not comport with applicable state law and public policy” and that the board “lacks the authority to adopt this proposed language.”
His position reverses a 2009 decision made by his predecessor, William C. Mims, a former Republican legislator and now a Virginia Supreme Court justice.
The board met in closed session with Assistant Attorney General Noelle Bell-Shaw before the debate. At least one group, Equality Virginia, questioned the legality of the closed-door session. Bell-Shaw declined to comment.
Cuccinelli spokesman Brian Gottstein said later that advice in the 2009 memorandum was “incorrect.”
“In our 2009 review of the 77 pages of proposed adoption regulations, we missed the fact that one line in those regulations would have created additional protected classes of citizens in Virginia, which is beyond the scope of the agency,” he said.
Board chairwoman Bela Sood, who was appointed by former Democratic governor governors Mark Warner and Timothy M. Kaine, requested that the panel postpone the vote, questioning the lack of time for public comment and for the board to consider the latest advice. But the board voted 6 to 2 to deny her request.
Last year, nearly 2,500 children were adopted in Virginia, according to the Department of Social Services, but it does not track how many are adopted through faith-based groups. About 5,700 children are in the foster-care system in Virginia. Of those, 1,300 are ready to be adopted.
Kaine, who is running for U.S. Senate next year, proposed the change in regulations in November 2009, less than two months before he left office. He recently said he supports the rules but declined to say whether he supports same-sex adoptions. He has previously opposed them.
Other adoption regulations approved Wednesday will be reviewed by McDonnell, the Department of Planning and Budget, and Health and Human Resources Secretary Bill Hazel. McDonnell must sign off on the new rules.
McDonnell has said he opposes the changes because faith-based organizations should be able to make their policies.
“Today’s vote by the board will ensure that Virginia remains in compliance with federal law while allowing private and faith-based organizations to continue providing vital adoption services for the large number of children who need to be placed in safe, loving homes,” McDonnell spokesman Jeff Caldwell said.