Lord Have Mercy: New law shields religious foster, adoption agencies from discrimination lawsuits

Faith-based adoption and foster care agencies in the state who make decisions based on their religious views are now free to do so without any threat of lawsuits thanks to a new law signed this week, and opponents say that could hurt foster kids across the state.

The new law, which Gov. Doug Ducey signed last week, protects foster and adoption agencies from religious discrimination, absolving them of how they provide—or deny—services in line with their religious beliefs, and establishes the right of foster parents to use their own religion to raise children in their care.

The legislation, Senate Bill 1399, was championed by a powerful Christian anti-LGBTQ organization as a preemptive shield for faith-based agencies in Arizona after agencies in other states had been forced to abide by non-discrimination statutes.

Critics argue that faith-based agencies in Arizona don’t currently deal with any repercussions for operating in ways consistent with their religious views—and instead of protecting them, the measure gives them broad license to discriminate against sorely needed foster care applicants.

The Anti-Defamation League, an international civil rights organization, expressed concern that the law could have a chilling effect in the Jewish community.

“We need more foster families in Arizona, and Jewish families who previously were interested in being foster parents may be discouraged now from signing up, for fear of being denied service because of their religion,” said Tammy Gillies, director of the ADL’s San Diego Regional Office.

There are as many as four kids in the state’s foster care system for every licensed family. Gillies noted this shortage won’t be helped by enacting legislation that causes families not to seek licensure because of fears they will be turned away, as has resulted from similar laws in other states. In Tennessee, a Jewish couple was rejected from the necessary foster parent training required to adopt, and a Catholic mother in South Carolina was told she couldn’t be a foster because she isn’t Protestant.

Prospective parents from minority religions aren’t the only ones likely to be discriminated against. The Human Rights Campaign, an LGBTQ rights advocacy group, warned that LGBTQ applicants also stand to lose, to the detriment of LGBTQ kids seeking affirming homes.

“In Arizona, #SB1399 would impose barriers to LGBTQ families looking to foster or adopt… The governor, who was adopted as a child, has said he doesn’t want to make it harder for kids to find forever families,” the group tweeted, just two days before Ducey signed the bill.

Center for Arizona Policy, a conservative Christian lobbying group with a long history of advancing anti-LGBTQ legislation, was in staunch support of the bill. It described the law on its website as protecting organizations with a “historical or religious view of human sexuality” from being forced to consent to modern views. A provision in the new law also protects foster parents who use their own religion to raise children placed in their care, but state law already prohibits discriminating against foster parents for their religion. Adding to that protection, children advocacy groups say, only opens the door for them to force their religion on foster kids—nearly half of whom will be reunited with biological families.

“A long held tenet of foster care is support, encouragement and respect for biological families’ cultures and religious practices,” said Virginia Watahomigie, in an email to the Arizona Mirror.

Watahomigie, executive director of the Coconino Coalition for Children and Youth, said she is concerned the provision will introduce further trauma in foster children’s already difficult experience.

Children’s Action Alliance Policy Director Molly Dunn echoed this, saying that foster kids themselves have legal protections for their own religious practices in place that would be violated by the new law.

Dunn said the alliance will work to ensure foster children are being placed with families that are safe and affirming of their religion, gender identity and sexual orientation through administrative advocacy with the Department of Child Safety, and will make sure to document instances where children’s rights aren’t being respected by foster parents.

SB1399 goes into effect 90 days after the close of the legislative session.

Gloria Gomez is the University of Arizona School of Journalism Don Bolles Fellow. This article was originally published by the Arizona Mirror, an online nonprofit news agency.

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