The Georgia Senate passed a bill on Friday that allows faith-based agencies receiving public funds to ban LGBT people from adopting children or becoming foster parents.
The Senate approved Senate Bill 375 by a vote of 35-19 after an hour of debate. It now heads to the House.
"In states across our nation, including here, we are failing our children by not including everything we can do by ensuring every door of opportunity is open for placement," Sen. William Ligon, the bill's sponsor, said. "For centuries, churches, people of faith have worked to rescue children from desperate circumstances and put them in loving homes."
"Just because you are a faith-based organization doesn't mean you check your faith at the door. There is a difference of opinion on this issue and on the issue of marriage," Ligon said. "We are either going to accommodate or subordinate one belief over another."
Ligon, a Republican from Brunswick, said the legislation would provide legal certainty to faith-based agencies that want to participate in the state's adoption and foster care system. He also brushed off criticism that it could prevent LGBT people from adopting children.
"This bill does not in way prevent anyone from adopting. It does not prevent any agency from participating in placing children in loving homes. The goal is to open as many doors as possible for those children that are in need of homes and this bill will do that," Ligon said.
Ligon's legislation – titled "Keep Faith in Adoption & Foster Care Act" – would allow faith-based agencies that cite sincerely-held religious beliefs in their mission statements to discriminate against LGBT people, unmarried individuals and those of different faiths and others and 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 LGBT or others based on those 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.
Sen. Nan Orrock, an Atlanta Democrat, argued that the bill "sends a message of hate."
"Gay people also practice in faith communities, also have religious beliefs," Orrock said. "The aspersions cast that a same-sex couple can not constitute a faith-based family – what are we saying here? What kind of belief is that?"
Sen. Elena Parent, an Atlanta Democrat, called the legislation "fundamentally flawed" and said it would discourage LGBT couples from adopting children.
"It sends the message that the State of Georgia thinks it is perfectly OK to discriminate. It is a slap in the face to same-sex couples who would consider adoption," Parent said.
Parent also said the concerns of supporters that faith-based agencies will be prohibited from operating in the state without the bill are overblown.
"There are no examples of anyone being driven out of business or the state declining to do business with them in Georgia," Parent said.
Sen. Jen Jordan, an Atlanta Democrat, questioned Ligon on whether language in the bill would prevent the state from protecting LGBT children.
"If the department is trying to place a gay teenager, and they knew a child placing agency was anti-gay, anti-LGBTQ, they could not take that into consideration whether or not that child placing agency was the best child placing agency for that child," Jordan asked.
Ligon said the legislation allows a variety of factors to be considered in placing children.
"I think you're raising an issue that is not happening. These agencies are bound to find the best fit possible. By providing a variety of options, then you are able to accommodate many different viewpoints and that's what this bill does," Ligon said.
But Jordan said the bill allows discrimination "against some of our Georgians."
Sen. Fran Millar, an Atlanta Republican, said he supports adoptions by LGBT people but argued the legislation expands the agencies that would take part in the state's foster and adoption system.
"This country needs more participation from faith-based agencies. Government can't do everything," Millar said.
"What I see this bill does is say yes we can broaden the opportunities to place children," Millar added. "If this broadens the base for opportunities to find people to love them and raise them, then by God I am going to vote for it."
A spokesperson for Gov. Nathan Deal did not respond to questions about S.B. 375 from Project Q Atlanta on Friday.
Deal vetoed a sweeping anti-LGBT "religious freedom" bill in 2016 and has expressed "deep-seated opposition" to similar measures since. Last year, Deal also criticized Ligon's LGBT adoption and foster care ban when it was added to other legislation.
'Legislation sanctions discrimination'
The bill has been on a fast track for approval since Ligon introduced it on Feb. 1. Lt. Gov. Casey Cagle – who presides over the Senate and is running for governor – guaranteed that senators would pass the measure.
Religious conservatives support the bill, touting it as a way to save faith-based adoption and foster care agencies from discrimination. But opponents have criticized the measure as a way to enshrine state-sponsored discrimination against LGBT people into Georgia law.
Stacey Abrams, the former Minority Leader in the House and current candidate for governor, blasted the legislation as "bigoted." Businesses and civic groups are also lining up against it.
The Metro Atlanta Chamber and the Georgia Chamber of Commerce criticized the bill for "sanctioning discrimination."
“Legislation that sanctions discrimination takes us further away from our goal of attracting investments that improve the lives of Georgia families. We accomplish that goal by focusing on issues that improve workforce development, education and transportation," Katie Kirkpatrick, chief policy officer for the Metro Atlanta Chamber, and David Raynor, senior vice president of public affairs for the Georgia Chamber of Commerce, said in a joint statement.
Both chambers opposed a similar measure from Ligon when it was tacked onto an adoption reform bill last year. In January, the chambers came out against a "religious freedom" bill from state Sen. Marty Harbin.
Fortune 500 company First Data, which is headquartered in Atlanta, criticized Ligon's bill and said it "perpetuates discrimination." The company is among several based in metro Atlanta that scores highly on HRC's Corporate Equality Report for its LGBT equality efforts in the workplace.
“First Data is based in Atlanta and we are proud to call Georgia home. However, we are strongly opposed to SB 375, the proposed legislation in Georgia that we believe perpetuates discrimination against the LGBT community,” Cindy Armine-Klein, First Data’s chief control officer, said in a statement released by Georgia Equality on Tuesday.
“First Data is committed to fostering an inclusive workplace that promotes fairness and diversity, and the proposed legislation violates our core belief that all Americans deserve to be treated equally and respectfully," Armine-Klein added.