Editor's note: This story was updated on May 10 to reflect that the House gave the measure final approval.
Faith-based adoption agencies in Texas would be able to reject prospective parents on religious grounds under a bill the state House preliminarily approved Tuesday over strong objections from Democratic lawmakers who said it would ultimately harm children and deny good people the right to care for them.
Under House Bill 3859, which advanced on a 94-51 vote, child welfare providers would be protected from legal retaliation if they assert their “sincerely held religious beliefs” while caring for abused and neglected children. The measure would allow them to 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 don't share their religious beliefs. (Update, May 10: The House voted Wednesday 93-49 to finally pass the bill. It is now headed to the Senate.)
Rep. James Frank, the Wichita Falls Republican who authored the bill and an adoptive father, said repeatedly during a lengthy debate Tuesday that his legislation is not meant to be exclusionary but to give providers some certainty when it comes to legal disputes. He described opposition to the bill as "fabricated hysteria."
"You can be successful, but it will cost you," Frank said. "The bill declares a winner and says, 'You are protected.'"
But Democratic lawmakers who lined up at a podium at the back of the House chamber to question Frank said the legislation would give religious groups license to discriminate against LGBT — or Jewish or divorced — parents who want to foster or adopt, or to avoid getting children vaccinated. A vast array of things could be classified as a “sincerely held religious belief," they said.
"We’re further casting these children off," said Rep. Jessica Farrar of Houston. "We’re making it more difficult for them to be adopted."
Rep. Celia Israel, D-Austin, said the bill was more about political posturing than helping children.
Another Austin Democrat, Donna Howard, asked Frank if there was a provision in the bill requiring adoption agencies to report when they invoke their "sincerely held religious beliefs"; he said there wasn't and that state lawmakers would be better notified of those decisions by their constituents than any kind of report.
"Could a child be placed with strangers rather than a relative because the relative is gay or transgender?" Howard asked.
Frank said that placements are made by Child Protective Services and so are not covered under the bill.
But without "requiring providers to provide advanced notice of what rights they will deny, this is impossible for CPS to do," the House Democratic Caucus said in a tweet responding to that claim.
Before approving the bill, the GOP-dominated House rejected several amendments proposed by Democrats, many of whom also attempted to derail the bill with technical legislative maneuvers. The House still must take a final vote on the bill before it advances to the Senate.
The heated debate over the legislation and its subsequent approval comes as legislators are facing pressure to quickly pass child welfare reforms before the session ends on May 29. Texas legislators and child welfare advocates have been working to tap various communities to help care for vulnerable and abused children. The faith-based community has been seen by some state leaders as a potential solution; Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick hosted a summit in November encouraging religious congregations to help, and Texas First Lady Cecilia Abbott in January publicly urged religious groups to support foster families with donations and other activities.
Read more of the Tribune's coverage:
- 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.