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Passage of adoption bill represents shift in Oklahoma

Despite a recent turn toward support of gay rights, the Oklahoma Legislature overwhelmingly passed a bill that would allow some agencies to deny LGBTQ couples.

OKLAHOMA CITY — Bills aimed at curtailing LGBTQ rights have been derailed in the deeply conservative Oklahoma Legislature in recent years as many Republicans grew weary of voting on measures that allow for discrimination against gay people.

Most of the bills were left to quietly die by failing to meet deadlines, but increasingly many were defeated openly with Republicans casting no votes on the floor or in committees. Those who did were supported by a business community wary of the kind of economic blowback states like Indiana and North Carolina received for passing anti-gay legislation.

But in a shift, the Legislature overwhelmingly approved a bill to grant legal protections to faith-based adoption agencies that won’t place children in LGBTQ homes. A similar measure also passed Thursday in Kansas, and in both cases, the bills were approved despite fierce resistance from gay rights advocates and opposition from an industry group representing major tech companies, including Microsoft, Amazon and Google.

While Republican Kansas Gov. Jeff Colyer supported the legislation, Oklahoma Gov. Mary Fallin hasn’t said whether she’ll sign her state’s.

If they become law, the bills aren’t expected to change current adoption practices in either state. Some faith-based agencies already do not allow gay couples or single people to adopt, and neither bill prohibits gay people or same-sex couples from adopting. But the measures would provide legal protections to those agencies that do.

Image: Greg Treat
Oklahoma state Sen. Greg Treat, R-Oklahoma City, Majority Floor Leader, answers a question about a budget deal in Oklahoma City on April 24, 2018.Sue Ogrocki / AP file

Backed by the powerful Baptist General Convention of Oklahoma and the state’s Catholic bishops, state Sen. Greg Treat, a top Republican leader in the Senate who wrote the bill, said he’s convinced some faith-based groups are hesitant to participate in adoptions for fear of being sued for discrimination.

“I would not be standing here on a bill as controversial as this if I didn’t believe it would help more children to get into loving homes,” Treat said during a sometimes testy debate on the bill.

Oklahoma Department of Human Services spokeswoman Debra Martin said she couldn’t say if there was a shortage of adoption providers, but the agency is currently seeking adoptive families for about 500 children.

The measure’s passage Thursday in the Oklahoma House was even more emotionally charged, with Democrats trying several parliamentary procedures to derail it. At one point, the presiding officer threatened to have one Democratic member forcibly removed from the chamber when he refused to sit down.

Image: Troy Stevenson
Troy Stevenson, executive director of the LGBTQ-rights organization Freedom Oklahoma, speaks in Montclair on Oct. 18, 2013.Joe Epstein / AP file

Troy Stevenson, executive director of the LGBTQ-rights organization Freedom Oklahoma, said this year’s shift toward support of the bill was due to the fact that Treat is in line to become the next Senate leader.

“This is pure politics,” Stevenson said. “It has nothing to do with constituents or districts. It’s because it’s the next (Senate) pro tem’s bill.”

Stevenson said some Republicans justified their support of the bill because gay people would still have opportunities to adopt.

“They didn’t think it would hurt that many people,” Stevenson said. “But that’s not what discrimination is about.”

Despite the bill’s passage, Stevenson acknowledged a shift in recent years in the Oklahoma Legislature toward support of gay rights, even among Republicans.

Image: David Holt
Oklahoma state Sen. David Holt, R-Oklahoma City, poses for photos at the state Capitol in Oklahoma City on July 31, 2015.Sue Ogrocki / AP file

Former state Sen. David Holt, a Republican who resigned from the Senate earlier this year after being elected mayor of Oklahoma City, said he agrees. While anti-gay rhetoric was once commonplace in GOP primaries, Holt said that’s no longer the case, especially in urban districts.

“I think the voters would punish you, because it’s not where they are any more,” Holt said. “And however you feel about the issue, it’s easy to get a large majority of people to agree it’s not the pressing issue we need to be talking about, that we’re wasting energy on what is a cultural or religious issue.”