ATLANTA — Legislation allowing faith-based adoption agencies to deny services in Georgia based on religious preferences was introduced Wednesday (Feb. 5) in the state Senate.
Opponents worry the bill, sponsored by Sen. Marty Harbin, would discriminate against foster parents of various sexual orientations and gender identities that do not conform to an agency’s religious or moral beliefs.
They view the measure, Senate Bill 368, as the latest push in Georgia for so-called “religious freedom” laws that permit businesses and churches to sidestep catering to same-sex couples or others who forgo traditional family arrangements.
But Harbin, R-Tyrone, argued his bill aims to attract adoption agencies that might avoid opening in Georgia without that right to deny services. He noted those agencies could instead go to Tennessee, where a similar adoption measure was signed into law in January.
Harbin said his bill is also geared toward respecting the wishes of some mothers not to hand their children over to same-sex foster parents.
“I believe that for the mothers it’s critically important where their children go,” Harbin said. “I think family and faith run together.”
That reasoning does not pass muster for Jeff Graham, executive director of the advocacy group Georgia Equality. He said the bill risks reducing the number of children who end up being adopted by winnowing the pool of potential foster parents.
Possible discrimination would not be limited only to gay, transgender or otherwise-identifying foster parents, Graham added. He highlighted adoption laws in South Carolina that allow agencies to deny services to non-Christian foster parents.
“We all know families come in a variety of makeups,” Graham said. “If an individual or couple can prove they can provide security for a child, they should be allowed to adopt in Georgia.”
Around 12,600 children were in Georgia’s foster care system as of December 2019, according to Tom Rawlings, director of the Georgia Division of Family and Children Services. The state agency helped adopt out roughly 1,400 children last year, he said.
Speeding up and simplifying adoptions in Georgia is a top priority for Gov. Brian Kemp in the 2020 legislative session. In January, Kemp urged passage of bills lowering the minimum foster-parent age from 25 to 21 and tripling the state’s adoption tax credit to $6,000.
Several governor-backed bills on foster care are expected to be filed in the coming weeks. One measure allowing the state to contract with licensed child-placing agencies was scheduled for hearing Wednesday (Feb. 5) afternoon in the Senate Judiciary Committee.
The federal government has a religious-freedom law on the books, but Georgia has not adopted a state version.
Recent stabs at doing so faced backlash from large corporations fearful of Georgia gaining a reputation for same-sex discrimination. Then-Gov. Nathan Deal vetoed a measure in 2016 giving faith-based groups broad leeway to deny services.
Harbin also sponsored a statewide religious-freedom bill in 2017 that died in the Senate.
His latest measure, narrower in scope, has backing from the Georgia Baptist Mission Board. Its public affairs minister, Mike Griffin, dismissed claims Wednesday that the adoption bill targets certain would-be foster parents.
“This is about not discriminating against faith-based agencies,” Griffin said.
Rep. Matthew Wilson, one of the legislature’s few openly gay members, disagreed. He called Harbin’s bill “hateful discrimination, pure and simple.”
“The state should not be in the business of discriminating against its own citizens,” said Wilson, D-Brookhaven.