by Chantel Hoyt
March 22, 2021
In recent weeks, congressional Republicans introduced legislation that would allow faith-based child welfare agencies to operate in line with their convictions and protect their religious freedom. The Senate version of the bill was sponsored by Senators John Kennedy (R-La.) and Tim Scott (R-S.C.) while Representative Mike Kelly (R-Pa.) introduced a companion bill in the House. Speaking about the bill, Scott said, “At a time where religious freedoms are under assault, the Child Welfare Provider Inclusion Act [CWPIA] is a necessary protection for those who are living according to their convictions.”
Several states have also recognized the need for such legislation. In recent weeks, Massachusetts, South Carolina, and Kentucky have all introduced legislation that aims to provide the same protections to faith-based child welfare agencies. Specifically, this includes the freedom to place children in homes consistent with their beliefs on biblical family life and sexuality.
While it is the first time this type of legislation has been introduced in these three states, their introduction, as well as the introduction of the federal CWPIA, signals broader concern around the country about the Biden administration’s focus on LGBT issues and how it will impact religious liberty. With President Biden’s support for the Equality Act—a bill that would negatively impact these faith-based agencies (and many other groups)—the future of faith-based child welfare agencies is uncertain. But those committed to preserving religious freedom aren’t likely to go down without a fight.
Legislatures in eight different states have felt the need to pass legislation to protect foster and adoption care agencies, beginning in 2012 (Virginia) and most recently in 2020 (Tennessee). Such legislation allows these agencies to operate in a way consistent with their religious beliefs, without suffering from license revocation, contract termination, or other adverse action from the state. This growing threat has already been seen in Michigan, South Carolina, Illinois, and Massachusetts as well as cities like San Francisco and Philadelphia. In many of these instances, faith-based foster and adoption care agencies have been forced to forego their religious beliefs, serve in a severely limited capacity, and even close their doors because they were not willing to compromise on their principles regarding marriage and sexuality.
Although such discriminatory actions harm the children these agencies serve, opponents of faith-based organizations tend to only focus on LGBT couples who are ‘turned away,’ supposedly limiting the pool of parents willing to help children in need. However, this logic makes two false assumptions.
The first is that faith-based child welfare agencies are LGBT couples’ only option to become parents. This is simply not the case. The majority of agencies in the country are more than willing to work with same-sex couples. Only about 25 percent of agencies are faith-based and have narrow criteria potential parents must meet. For example, in Philadelphia in 2018, only two out of the nearly 30 child welfare agencies were faith-based. The city terminated these agencies’ contracts anyway. The lawsuit filed against the city by foster parents who worked with Catholic Social Services has shown that the agency had not denied service or turned away anyone because of their LGBT status. Further, it showed that should they be unable to partner with a couple that approaches them, they would help that couple connect with one of the other 29 agencies in the city. This is not enough for the activists. Clearly, they were sued because of their religious belief. The picture of a same-sex couple being turned away from a faith-based agency and having nowhere else to turn is simply inaccurate.
The second false assumption is that more children will receive homes and much needed care if faith-based agencies are forced to make the choice between their beliefs and continuing to help those in need. The reality, though, is that fewer children will receive the care they need because some of the highest performing and longest serving agencies will be shut down or sidelined simply because they’re faith-based. Illinois’ foster and adoption system, for example, seems to still be suffering after the closure of Catholic Charities in 2011. Sadly, Illinois has seen a 14 percent decrease in the number of non-relative foster care beds or homes from 2012 to 2017, and the state lost 1,547 foster homes during that same time period—homes that could have been available to serve foster children in need. It should go without saying that this will harm children in the foster care and adoption systems.
Protecting the ability of faith-based child welfare agencies to continue operating in accordance with their religious beliefs is good for everyone. It helps more children receive care by increasing the number of agencies able to serve them. Allowing religious organizations of any kind to operate alongside non-religious ones is crucial to preserve freedom of religion in our society and to ensure that we are able to serve as many children in need as possible.
We are thankful for the many states and those in Congress who are taking steps to protect this crucial area of religious freedom.