Private faith-based adoption agencies that receive state funding but choose to deny service to gay parents on religious grounds have won the blessing of Michigan’s Republican-led Legislature.
The state Senate, in an unexpected and unannounced move, took up religious objection adoption legislation on Wednesday, approving the three-bill package in a series of 26-12 votes.
One Republican, Sen. Tory Rocca of Sterling Heights, joined all 11 Democrats in opposition.
One of the bills, changed slightly by the Senate, must return to the House for concurrence before heading to the desk of Gov. Rick Snyder, whose office said he was “closely reviewing” the legislation after initial House approval in April.
Critics, comparing the bills to controversial Religious Freedom Restoration Act proposals in Michigan and other states, argued the legislation amounts to state-sanctioned discrimination that would limit adoption options for willing parents who happen to be gay.
“What we are doing here is allowing the beliefs of a few to have horrible consequences for the many,” said Senate Minority Leader Jim Ananich, D-Flint. “I’m a man of faith, and I support religious freedom. What I don’t support is using that as cover for discrimination.”
Supporters argue that the bills would simply codify an existing Department of Human Services policy and protect faith-based agencies, which have long partnered with the state to find homes for foster children, from any future “adverse action.”
Catholic agencies in some other states, including Illinois, have closed their doors rather than comply with new regulations that they said would have forced them to violate their sincerely held religious beliefs.
“It’s a concern of all of us to make sure our children have loving homes, secure homes, stable homes,” said Sen. Judy Emmons, R-Sheridan, who chairs the Senate Committee on Families, Seniors and Human Services.
“That’s been our goal through the process with this piece of legislation, and I do believe the process that the state has utilized these last years for the adoption of our most vulnerable children has worked very well, and we would like to continue that process.”
Under the legislation, an adoption agency which declines to serve a prospective parent on religious grounds must refer them to another agency and provide them with written information about state adoption services, including a list of other providers.
Democrats proposed a series of amendments designed to give prospective parents more warning, including one proposal that would have required the agencies to post information detailing their rejection policies online.
Emmons urged her colleagues to oppose the amendments, saying that adoptive parents are “doing their due diligence” by researching agencies and suggesting that “word gets around” about their policies.
Sen. David Knezek, in a passionate floor speech, described working alongside gay colleagues when he served in the military and urged his fellow Senators to think about the gay people they work beside before voting on the legislation.
“I can’t tell you how embarrassed I am that this is a policy we actually have to be debating in 2015,” said Knezek, D-Dearborn Heights.
“Do we really believe, and are we actually discussing, whether or not homosexuality is a sinful and deviant behavior in the state Senate? Do we really believe that these gay parents are incapable of raising their children without corrupting or demoralizing them?”
There are 62 adoption agencies operating in the state, and 17 have a religious affiliation, according to the Michigan Catholic Conference, which advocated for passage of the legislation.
Several of those adoption agencies operate in multiple locations. Bethany Christian Services, the largest agency in the state, has offices in eight Michigan counties.
Senate Minority Leader Arlan Meekhof, who was personally adopted through a faith-based adoption agency, urged his colleagues to support the bills and denied the suggestion that they would limit adoption options for any prospective parents.
“I think the past practice over 50 years have proven that’s not true,” Meekhof, R-West Olive, told reporters after session.
“We just codified what’s been going on over the last five decades, that faith-based agencies are allowed to exercise their religious freedom in placing. There are plenty, plenty of other places for folks to go.
Meekhof declined to discuss what kind of feedback he’d gotten from the governor, who is likely to find the bills on his desk in short order.
“Once the bills are formally presented, Gov. Snyder will be closely reviewing them considering what will best take care of the most Michigan children and matching them with forever families,” Snyder spokesperson Dave Murray said after Wednesday’s vote.
Update: The Michigan House concurred on Senate changes to House Bill 4188 later Wednesday in a 65-44 vote. The full package is now headed to the governor’s desk for consideration.