A bill that would allow faith-based agencies to receive public funds and ban adoptions and foster care by LGBT people and others was approved by a key committee in the Georgia Senate on Tuesday.
The passage of Senate Bill 375 – titled the "Keep Faith in Adoption & Foster Care Act" – by the Senate Judiciary Committee means the anti-LGBT measure could see a vote by the full state Senate as soon as Wednesday. The bill, from state Sen. William Ligon, passed on a voice vote along party lines that appeared to be 5-2 in favor of it. Five Republicans – Sens. Ligon, Josh McKoon, Blake Tillery, Greg Kirk and Brian Strickland – appeared to vote for the bill, while Democrats Sens. Elena Parent and Harold Jones voted against it.
During a half-hour debate about the bill, Ligon defended his legislation from criticism that it would shrink the pool of adoptive and foster parents by pushing LGBT people out of the process.
"This does not exclude anyone but it recognizes there are differing views on marriage and this is a way to accommodate those views," Ligon said. "There are plenty of agencies that will focus on LGBT adoptions. The door is open to anyone who is qualified to serve children."
Ligon's bill would allow faith-based agencies with mission statements to discriminate against LGBT people, unmarried individuals and those of different faiths and others to receive state contracts to place foster children and handle adoptions. The legislation would also prevent those groups from facing any penalties by state agencies if they refuse service to people based on sincerely held religious beliefs.
The bill – the latest rebuke from religious conservatives to the legalization of same-sex marriage in 2015 – seems to be an answer in search of a problem. The faith-based agencies are already allowed to refuse to serve LGBT people and others based on their faith and they have not been kept from receiving contracts with the state's foster care system, according to the AJC.
But Ligon's bill has re-ignited the long-running debate over anti-LGBT "religious freedom" measures in the Georgia Legislature.
Ligon (top photo) has framed the issue as protecting faith-based adoption and foster care agencies from being penalized for their "sincerely held religious beliefs." Critics said the bill would provide taxpayer funds to agencies that are already legally allowed to discriminate against LGBT people, single parents and those that aren't conservative Christians.
On Tuesday, Parent (second photo) criticized Ligon's bill and said the legislation is the result of "amorphous nervousness" among supporters even though faith-based agencies are already allowed to refuse to serve LGBT people.
"We don't have the laws that you are nervous about," Parent said to Ligon. "It seems like it is dealing with problems that don't exist here in Georgia, but I understand that for some people it might make them feel better."
Parent also said the legislation could put LGBT children in state care at risk.
"There is a real question whether or not they can be harmed. The legislation puts the religious beliefs of agencies and those that serve kids above the kids themselves and there's where I have a particular problem with it," Parent said.
"All of us are taxpayers, same-sex or not. I personally don't approve of those receiving state funding picking and choosing who they serve on their personal beliefs," she added.
McKoon defended the legislation as a necessary step to prevent changes in state policy that could keep faith-based agencies that discriminate against LGBT people and others from receiving state contracts to place children in foster and adoptive care.
"There is a debate and the debate will continue about whether people of faith are going to be pushed to the margins of our society or if they are going to be allowed to live out their faith not just in the four walls of their house of worship on a designated day or in the four walls of their home, but whether or not they are going to be able to live out their faith in the charitable works that they do," McKoon said.
Ligon introduced the bill on Feb. 1. The Republican from Brunswick pledged to introduce the measure in January after the anti-LGBT language was removed from a sweeping reform of the state's adoption and foster care laws.
The legislation was vetted during a 90-minute hearing before a subcommittee of the Senate Judiciary Committee on Feb. 8, which set the stage for the Judiciary Committee vote on Tuesday.
UPDATE | Jeff Graham, executive director of Georgia Equality, denounced the measure in a press release after the committee vote.
“There are no winners with SB 375,” said Jeff Graham, Georgia Equality’s Executive Director. “This bill does not help the thousands of young people in our state’s adoption and foster care system. It does not help loving parents who are looking to open their homes to children in need, either through fostering or adoption. It does not help our state’s economic image – particularly at this crucial juncture in our bid to bring up to 50,000 new and high-paying jobs to our state through Amazon. There are only losers with this bill: children denied permanent and loving homes, and potential parents coldly turned away simply because of who they are.”
“Georgia is being tugged in two very different directions at the moment, and lawmakers in the Senate should pause before advancing this bill,” added Graham. “We have an opportunity to continue strengthening our state’s brand by enacting welcoming and inclusive policies that protect everyone from discrimination, or we can codify discriminatory practices that hurt Georgia’s kids, hobble our communities, and stagnate our economy."