Texas senators voted 21-10 on Sunday to give child welfare providers protection from legal retaliation if they assert their “sincerely held religious beliefs” while caring for abused and neglected children in foster or Child Protective Services custody.

House Bill 3859 would allow faith-based organizations 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. If a faith-based group refuses services to children or prospective homes on religious grounds, they would be required to refer the child or parent to a different organization that can help them. (Update, May 23: The Senate gave the bill final approval on Sunday and sent it to the governor's desk.)

The bill comes as 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.

Opponents have decried the legislation, saying it discriminates against LGBT people seeking to be foster or adoptive parents and against people who may have different religious views. They also argue that “sincerely held religious beliefs” is too ambiguous and leaves the door open for those views to be applied to physical discipline, diets, medical care, blood transfusions, vaccinations and how boys and girls are treated.

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Sen. Charles Perry, R-Lubbock, the bill's sponsor, told members that the legislation is "not meant to discriminate" against anyone and that the "best interest of the child" would always be top priority. He warned members that voting down the bill may alienate faith-based providers from wanting to help and could inadvertently undo the Legislature's work this session on child welfare bills.

"This is giving them confidence to go forward and know they can carry out their mission statement," Perry said. 

Proponents of HB 3859 have said that the legislation would provide faith-based groups protection from lawsuits and would encourage more to participate as child welfare providers. Among the state's child welfare providers, 25 percent identify as faith-based, Perry said during the debate.

Throughout the hour-plus debate, Democrats decried the bill as being discriminatory to LGBT-identifying children and LGBT adults seeking to become foster or adoptive parents. Senate Democrats also expressed concern that the bill would put faith-based agencies ahead of children's needs and that children could be put in a home where they could be abused or denied medical care.

Sen. Sylvia Garcia, D-Houston, told Perry she did not understand what religious-based agencies would be afraid of and that the legislation gives them "a pass to do placements they want to or do not want to do."

"It seems to me that the focus is in protecting the agency and not really concerned about the interest of the child and making sure that the child has a loving home," Garcia said. "If we were really concerned about that, we wouldn't be concerned about protections for an agency."

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Perry repeatedly told Democrats that the bill puts the child's needs first and it would be "absurd" for him to fight for legislation that would put children in harmful situations.

Jennifer Allmon, executive director of the Texas Catholic Conference of Bishops, one of the lead groups supporting HB 3859, said in an email statement that "our ministries can re-engage in their historic efforts to serve the vulnerable children of Texas." 

She said Catholic Charities chapters in California, the District of Columbia, Illinois and Massachusetts closed their foster care services when lawmakers did not pass religious protections for them. Some of the Texas area chapters have suspended services temporarily, but Allmon said there are plans to jump-start foster parent recruitment and more programs to find homes for child trafficking victims and older children. 

"We are already in conversation about how we can re-assess our ability to provide assistance and solutions for the foster care needs in Texas," Allmon said.

Child welfare groups have been staunchly opposed to HB 3859 since it was introduced. They have said that the bill would not be in the best interest of children needing homes.

Will Francis, government relations director for the Texas chapter of the National Association of Social Workers, said the legislation is vague and "allows anybody to use a faith-based benefit to promote their own agenda." 

"You could really discriminate in every point of entry in the child welfare system," Francis said of the legislation. "If you essentially put your own agenda first, the department has no way of removing you from the system." 

Kathy Miller, president of the Texas Freedom Network, said in a news release after the vote that it's "worse than disheartening" to see legislators "misuse religion as an excuse for allowing taxpayer-funded discrimination."

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"Hundreds of faith leaders from Texas and across the nation have warned that bills like this are about discrimination and hurting people, not protecting religious freedom," Miller said. "Frankly, this bill's passage reinforces the reputation of Texas as a state run by politicians who are hostile to treating everyone equally under the law."

Similar legislation has become law in Michigan, North Dakota, South Dakota and Virginia.

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. 
  • Faith-based adoption agencies in Texas would be able to reject prospective parents on religious grounds under a bill the state House approved Tuesday over objections from Democratic lawmakers.

Disclosure: The Texas Freedom Network has been a financial supporter of The Texas Tribune. A complete list of Tribune donors and sponsors is available here.

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