TOPEKA, Kan. – Gay rights advocates from across the country arrived at the Kansas Capitol on Thursday to oppose an adoption bill that they see as a civil rights setback.
The bill, called the Adoption Protection Act, would prevent the state from withholding grants or contracts to faith-based agencies that refuse to place children into homes that violate their religious beliefs. It would also grant further protections from lawsuits brought against them for such actions.
Critics of the bill argued that it will allow religious agencies to freely discriminate against same-sex Kansas residents looking to adopt. Supporters, however, said the measure helps secure the rights of the religious agencies and the families that rely on them. Gov. Jeff Colyer has expressed his support of the bill.
The statewide debate has caught the attention of the Washington, D.C, based Human Rights Campaign, America's largest LGBTQ advocacy group.
"At this very moment, there is a bill rooted in nothing more than discrimination and bigotry working its way through the state legislature," HRC President Chad Griffin said at a news conference Thursday. He also urged Kansans to oppose the legislation which he said sends an "openly hostile" message to LGBT Americans everywhere.
Having passed the Senate, the proposal needs only House approval.
On Thursday, a Kansas City-area pastor echoed the sentiments of measure-backing lawmakers during the opening prayer.
"Touch the hearts of our lawmakers with the wisdom and courage to uphold conscience rights and religious liberties for all," Father Brian Schieber said. "Protect all people from being forced to violate their moral and religious convictions."
The Kansas foster care system is already so overloaded that losing faith-based agencies would only increase that burden, Republican Rep. Susan Humphries of Wichita said. The state Department for Children and Families reported last month that 7,540 children were in foster care. The number was at 5,711 a decade ago, having increased consistently.
Similar legislation is under consideration in Oklahoma, and already exists in Michigan, South Dakota, Alabama and Texas.
The Michigan chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union took the state to court over that state's legislation last year in a lawsuit that's still ongoing. ACLU Kansas has said in the past that it would consider filing suit in the state if the Adoption Protection Act is enacted.
The protections would help insure faith-based agencies aren't the target of lawsuits, which some supporters said has been a problem elsewhere, like Michigan.
"We have room in Kansas for everybody," Humphries said. "And we need everybody."
Tom Witt, head of LGBT advocacy group Equality Kansas, said the problem with the foster care system isn't a shortage of agencies, it's a shortage of families. He said that this legislation will help drain an already shallow pool.
Lori Ross is president of Foster Adopt Connect, a child placement agency with locations in Kansas and Missouri. Ross said the discrimination wouldn't end with LGBT adults. She said LGBT children in foster care have a harder time as it is finding homes who want them, and limiting access for would-be parents who could best relate to them skews the odds against them even further. The chance of ending up in a home where their identity isn't understood or accepted is greater, she said, which can lead to abuse or neglect.
The protections outlined in the bill do not apply to the two agencies contracting directly with DCF to provide foster care services. The two contractors receive funding from DCF, and they can choose to give grants and contracts to adoption agencies as subcontractors, some of which are faith-based.
Critics said the act gives faith-based agencies the right to discriminate even as they receive state funding, which Witt said is his primary frustration.
"If they, in the privacy of their agencies and their churches, want to engage in discriminatory behavior, that's between them and God," Witt said. "Right now, what they're trying to do is between them and the rest of us taxpayers."