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Religious Liberty Amendment Alarms Foster Care Advocates

Before it goes on vacation, the U.S. Senate could significantly cut child welfare funding in states with anti-discrimination policies protecting LGBT people who want to adopt or foster.

LGBT Foster Families
Shannon Smith, left, poses with his husband, Ross Stencil, and the couple's two adopted sons.
(AP/Susan Haigh)
With the U.S. Senate in a mad dash to pass another funding package before the end of the week, many amendments fly under the radar. One of those would significantly cut some states' foster care funding and discourage them from enacting protections for LGBT couples and children.

The Aderholt amendment, named for U.S. Rep. Robert Aderholt of Alabama, would cut 15 percent of a child welfare agency's federal funding if their state has an anti-discrimination policy in place for adoptions and fostering. Currently, eight states plus the District of Columbia would be subject to the potential loss of money.

Congress is debating this issue amid Monday's announcement by the Trump administration that it is creating a "religious liberty" task force.

Aderholt says that his amendment is in response to the growing number of caseloads and would allow more religious organizations to help.

“Here in Alabama, we have seen a 30 percent increase in [children in foster care] just the last four years. ... Several states and localities across the country are not allowing religious organizations, such as Catholic Charities and Bethany Christian Services, to operate child welfare agencies. The reason for this is simply because these organizations, based on religious conviction, choose not to place children with same-sex couples,” says a statement on his website.

Despite the rising caseloads, 10 states have religious freedom laws explicitly allowing child welfare agencies to reject same-sex couples and LGBT people based on their gender identity or sexual orientation. They would not be impacted by the proposed funding cut.

LGBT and foster care advocates worry that if this amendment passes, it will send a message to those 10 states, including Kansas, that could result in more discrimination.

“Kansas already does not have a good track record on discrimination in the foster care system, so I fear things that have been happening on a small scale will be ramped up,” says Benet Magnuson, executive director of Kansas Appleseed, a nonprofit that advocates for vulnerable populations in the state. 

Magnuson cites a 2013 court ruling which found that the state’s Department for Children and Families had gone to “extraordinary measures” to prevent a lesbian couple from adopting a child they had cared for since birth. 

Lawmakers in South Carolina adopted a religious freedom law that allows for adoption discrimination earlier this year as part of its budget.

“We’re already struggling to get foster care families, and we are absolutely struggling to make sure we have safe spaces for children," says Sue Berkowitz, director of the South Carolina Appleseed Legal Justice Center. "[The fact that] the one thing that made it into the budget was a discriminatory policy breaks my heart.” 

Opponents of the amendment argue that these religious freedom laws negatively impact children and their long-term well-being.

“If you don’t feel accepted in society, it has a ripple effect on a child’s health,” says Laura Hanen, chief of government affairs for the National Association of City and County Health Officials, which has come out against the measure. 

The Aderholt amendment passed the U.S. House, which is already on recess until September. It is expected to face a tougher battle in the Senate, but "there’s a strong feeling on the conservative side that they’d like to codify this nationally," says Melvin Wilson, social justice and human rights manager for the National Association of Social Workers, which opposes the amendment. 

Mattie covers all things health for Governing.

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