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House panel hears testimony on child welfare religious liberty bill

House State Affairs Committee members heard testimony Wednesday afternoon on House Bill 3859, which would allow faith-based organizations to exercise their “sincerely held religious beliefs” when participating as providers in Texas’ child welfare system.

State Rep. Byron Cook, R-Corsicana, the chairman of the House State Affairs Committee, listened to testimony about how researchers use fetal tissue on April 28, 2016.

A religious liberty fight is brewing among legislators and child welfare providers.

House State Affairs Committee members heard testimony Wednesday afternoon on House Bill 3859, which would allow faith-based organizations to exercise their “sincerely held religious beliefs” when participating as providers in Texas’ child welfare system. Witnesses testifying against the bill said it could give religious groups license to use their faith as a reason to refuse to place foster children with gay couples or with families with certain religious beliefs.

Rep. James Frank, R-Wichita Falls, the author of HB 3859 and vice chairman of the House Human Services Committee, said during the hearing that the legislation was not meant to discriminate against anyone and that the goal was to bolster a “diverse network of providers” from religious groups to LGBT organizations.

"The point isn't about the political stuff,” Frank said. “It's about having as many quality homes as possible."

Under Frank’s bill, faith-based providers would be allowed to deny a foster or adoptive placement if it’s against their religious beliefs; place a child in a religion-based school; deny referrals for abortion-related contraceptives, drugs or devices; and refuse to contract with other organizations that go against their religious beliefs.

The religious liberty fight comes as state legislators try to move child welfare-related bills ahead of the May 29 end of the 140-day regular session. State leaders have been adamant in recent months about the Legislature taking bolder, more creative actions to fix how Texas cares for abused and neglected children. One of those steps includes more outreach to faith-based agencies that could work with the state’s child welfare system

Jennifer Allmon, executive director of the Texas Catholic Conference of Bishops, said religious groups have been targeted for things like not facilitating access to abortions. She said several Catholic charities in Texas have suspended or ended services to foster children in light of recent lawsuits.

“It would be tragic if the reforms sought this session did not ensure that we could provide foster services in accordance with the very values that make our assistance so essential to the success of reform,” Allmon told committee members.

Rep. Eddie Rodriguez, D-Austin, said during the hearing he and other Democrats wanted to see more faith-based providers helping foster children but he did not understand why the religious liberty protection was necessary.

"I don't understand why [religious groups] can't play by the rules like everybody else," Rodriguez said.

Throughout the hearing, there were testy exchanges between legislators and witnesses about whether the bill would allow for religious groups to discriminate.

One of them happened when Katherine Miller, president of the Texas Freedom Network, a nonpartisan group focused on religious freedom and individual liberties, spoke against the bill during the hearing. She said the legislation “does not assert [that] the best interest of the child outweighs the sincerely held religious beliefs” of a faith-based provider.

“This bill would allow individual and organizations to use religion to discriminate and harm others,” Miller said.

Dallas Republican Rep. Morgan Meyer disagreed. “You are reading into it an intent that is not even close to existence,” he told Miller.

Brantley Starr, deputy assistant attorney for the Texas Attorney General’s office, told committee members HB 3859 is a “religious accommodation bill” and would not exclude the LGBT community or anyone else from participating as a child welfare provider or adoptive family. He said the bill puts the onus on the religious provider or the Department of Family and Protective Services to find a suitable placement for a child.

“They can’t just say, ‘No, we won’t help you,’ and hang up the phone,” Starr said of faith-based organizations. “There is always someone who would do that placement ... This bill goes beyond to connect with the Department of Family and Protective Services and make [faith based-providers] aware of who the backup provider would be for them.”

There was also tension when Miller, alongside other witnesses opposing the bill, brought up Lester Roloff, a Baptist preacher who ran unlicensed homes for teenagers in Corpus Christi. Roloff told Texas legislators in the 1970s his homes should be allowed religious exemptions to go about their practice of giving irregular meals and physically abusing children. Witnesses testifying against the bill said HB 3859 could be interpreted to allow faith-based groups to use their religious beliefs for practices that could be harmful to children.

Committee Chairman Byron Cook, R-Corsicana, expressed dismay that witnesses were linking HB 3859 back to Roloff. He said the Roloff situation was much was much different than HB 3859.

“Your [suggestion that] we’re going back to that is disappointing,” Cook said. “If you care about kids, then you’ll figure out how to work together ... It’s easy to come in here and be against, but it’s a lot harder to give solutions. We have kids that are suffering while we’re trying to figure this out.”

While the committee left HB 3859 pending, some members say provisions from the bill could be tacked on as amendment to other child welfare legislation, including House Bill 6, also written by Frank.

Read related Tribune coverage:

  • Texas legislators are considering sharpening religious protections for faith-based groups the state hires to place children in foster homes. Critics say that could give religious groups license to discriminate.
  • After months of calls from advocates to take drastic measures, both chambers unanimously passed bills on Wednesday that would change how the Texas Department of Family and Protective Services cares for vulnerable children. 
  • Texas First Lady Cecilia Abbott and Department of Family and Protective Services Commissioner Hank Whitman are making a push for religious groups to give their time and services to help foster families.


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