An Open Door Adoption Agency can’t contract with the state of Georgia because it limits placing children to the families of Christians, just as it has since opening in 1986.
The Thomasville adoption agency serves the whole state and is one of the religious-based child-placement nonprofits operating in Georgia that could start receiving state money if a newly introduced bill is passed. Supporters of Senate Bill 368 include some of Georgia’s most influential senators.
Detractors say the change will provide religious organizations a state-sponsored license to deny same-sex couples and people from other faiths the chance to become foster parents and adopt children.
The bill is set to go before the full Senate after the Legislature returns from adjournment Feb. 18. Its sponsor, Sen. Marty Harbin, a Tyrone Republican, said the bill will likely be assigned to the Judiciary Committee, where several of the bill’s co-sponsors are members.
Another bill from Harbin that aimed to strengthen laws protecting religious Georgians stalled last year. Business interests and human rights advocates opposed similar religious liberty legislation in the past as forms of discrimination.
Faith-based adoption and foster placement organizations should be able to conform to their beliefs while working with the state to find good homes, An Open Door Adoption CEO Walter Gilbert said.
Many Georgia agencies cater to Christians, Muslims or other faiths, as well as for people who are not spiritual, he said. An Open Door says on its website it also will not work with members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints or Jehovah’s Witnesses.
“We’ve operated for 30 years without (state funding), we can continue to operate without it,” Gilbert said. “But we could offer far more services to the state and find more families for foster care if there is funding available.”
On the other hand, adoption agencies that want to discriminate against same sex couples and others should not get taxpayer money while doing so, said Jeff Graham, executive director of Georgia Equality.
The pool of prospective adoptive parents should instead be expanding to deal with the nearly 13,000 children in the foster-care system in need of a home, he said.
“The other piece that’s concerning too is that because the language is so broad, it would allow adoption agencies to turn away kids that don’t adhere to their religious views,” Graham said. “When you go after kids that way, it’s politics at its worse.”
Faith-based adoption agencies deserve the same rights as other child-placement organizations, said Mike Griffin, public affairs representative for the Georgia Baptist Mission Board.
“This is people carrying out their rights just like anybody,” he said. “No matter what your sexual orientation, gender identity means you have a right to be able to carry out your faith in a way that the government has to respect… this is not a gender issue regarding who gets this right, this is for all Americans.”
The adoption legislation could also encourage more agencies to come to Georgia, Harbin said.
“You would rather come to a state (that) you feel comfortable with, you go to Tennessee before you would come here maybe, simply because there’s some protection that’s there,” he said.
However, the Georgia and Atlanta chambers of commerce worry the state could miss out on business investments if Harbin’s bill becomes law.
Still, the foster care system and shortage of foster parents is a focal point of some state lawmakers and Gov. Brian Kemp. About 13,000 children are under the state’s foster care system, and 116 child-placement adoption agencies work with families, according to the Division of Children and Family Services.
Kemp is still undecided if he would sign the bill, a spokeswoman said.
State Sen. Jen Jordan, an Atlanta Democrat, said Harbin’s bill is a political stunt.
There is an ever-evolving demographic shift in Georgia that is increasingly opposed to what it entails, she said.
“People are free to do what they want most of the time but when they talk about getting money from the state or getting a contract with the state, that’s a completely different thing,” Jordan said.