Visitors shown at the Texas state capitol in January. (Ilana Panich-Linsman/For The Washington Post)

The Texas Senate has passed a bill that protects state-funded foster care and adoption agencies that want to make decisions about child care and child placement based on “sincerely held religious beliefs.”

House Bill 3859, which passed the state Senate on Monday, would protect religious-based child-welfare providers that choose to turn away same-sex couples or families with certain religious views. The bill also would protect foster parents or group homes that decline for religious reasons to provide certain services to the children in their care — such as emergency contraceptives or abortions or, some worry, vaccinations.

The issue has become a flash point between proponents — who argue that such religious protections give agencies the ability to help an overburdened state welfare system while sticking to their bedrock principles — and those who worry that the bill’s broad language could create an environment of discrimination that will harm children.

“We think the primary purpose of this is to permit lesbian, gay and transgender parents to be turned away, but there’s nothing in the bill that prevents agencies from turning away, for example, people who have been divorced, people who are single, or people who don’t go to church enough,” said Rebecca Robertson, legal and policy director for the Texas chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union. “At every point where a decision about a kid’s care is being made, you could have the rights of the child-welfare provider take precedent over the best interest of the child.”

Robertson said that putting personal religious beliefs ahead of the best interests of children means the state is taking away a primary layer of protection for children. “The state needs to have the ability to always put the best interest of the child first, and this bill undermines that protection,” she said.

Most agree that Texas’s child welfare system is overloaded, with more than 16,000 children in state foster care, according to the Texas Department of Family and Protective Services. Earlier this month, Texas state Rep. James Frank (R-Wichita Falls), the author of the bill, said that Texas is struggling to find quality foster homes in part because religious organizations fear their positions on sensitive issues could lead them into trouble.

“A substantial part of any answer to this problem will be found in the faith-based community,” Frank said in a statement. “Unfortunately, the ability of many of the faith-based institutions to continue offering services is threatened by the prospect of litigation for declining to provide certain services (such as abortion) because of sincerely held religious beliefs.”

Frank said House Bill 3859 protects faith-based foster care and adoption agencies while also requiring the Department of Family and Protective Services to make sure that there are alternative providers ready to assist anyone who is denied services on religious grounds. Presented as protecting religious beliefs, the bill also specifies that agencies cannot discriminate based on race, ethnicity or national origin.

“Not one foster parent/family who wants to provide a home for our kids will be denied from doing so,” he said. “Not one.”

Jennifer Carr Allmon, executive director of the Texas Catholic Conference of Bishops, said the purpose of the bill is “to increase foster care capacity to ensure a diverse network of families and providers are ready to serve.”

“Providing conscience protection for families will enable pastors to encourage loving families to be part of a caring network for these children,” she said in a statement. “It will also allow faith-based providers to re-engage with Texas Department of Family Protective Services (DFPS), bringing the expertise and resources of Catholic Charities to the aid of some of our most desperate and needy children.”

The Texas Tribune reported that Catholic Charities chapters in California, Illinois, Massachusetts and the District stopped offering foster care services when state lawmakers would not pass similar religious protections. But, Allmon said, Catholic Charities “are willing to return to the field and work side-by-side with all people of good will so that no child is further traumatized by an inadequate foster care system.”

If Gov. Greg Abbott (R) approves the bill, which passed in the House earlier this month, it would make Texas the second state to protect state-funded agencies that choose to turn away families for religious reasons, according to the Associated Press. The other is South Dakota.

Will Francis, government relations director for the Texas chapter of the National Association of Social Workers, said he has “major concerns” about the bill. If a child is denied services because of their foster parents’ religious convictions, he said, “it’s up to the child — the person who’s been denied the service — to find an alternative service.”

And Robertson, with the ACLU, said most children are not going to know how to advocate for themselves.