AUSTIN, Texas — Parents seeking to adopt children in Texas could soon be rejected by state-funded or private agencies with religious objections to them being Jewish, Muslim, gay, single, or interfaith couples, under a proposal in the Republican-controlled Legislature.
Five other states have passed similar laws protecting faith-based adoption organizations that refuse to place children with gay parents or other households on religious grounds — but Texas' rule would extend to state-funded agencies. Only South Dakota's is similarly sweepingly.
The bill had been scheduled for debate and approval Saturday in the state House, but lawmakers bogged down with other matters. It now is expected to come up this week.
Republican sponsors of Texas' bill say it is designed to support the religious freedom of adoption agencies and foster care providers. Many of the agencies are private and faith-based but receive state funds.
But opponents say it robs children of stable homes while funding discrimination with taxpayer dollars.
"This would allow adoption agencies to turn away qualified, loving parents who are perhaps perfect in every way because the agency has a difference in religious belief," said Catherine Oakley, senior legislative counsel for the Human Rights Campaign. "This goes against the best interest of the child."
The bill also blatantly violates the Constitution, Oakley added.
"As a governmental entity, Texas is bound to treat people equally under the law," said Oakley. "This is a violation of equal protection under the law."
State Rep. James Frank, the bill's author, said it's designed to address the state's foster care crisis by making "reasonable accommodations so everyone can participate in the system."
"Everyone is welcome. But you don't have to think alike to participate," said Frank, a Republican from rural Wichita Falls, near Texas' border with Oklahoma.
A federal judge in 2015 ruled that the state's foster care system violated youngsters' constitutional rights. Republican Gov. Greg Abbott made fixing it an "emergency" priority and the Legislature has increased funding while backing a number of major changes.
Suzanne Bryant, an Austin-based adoption attorney who works with LGBTQ clients and was one of the first individuals to have a legal same-sex marriage in Texas, said the bill fails to provide alternatives for prospective parents rebuffed by adoption agencies.
"Say you call an agency and say, 'I'm Jewish,' and it's a Catholic agency and they hang up on you," said Bryant. "The bill says you can be referred to another agency, but there's no mechanism to set that up."
Not only could agencies turn away hopeful parents under the religious freedom provision, but they could require children in the foster care system to comply with their faith-based requirements, said Bryant.
That means child welfare organizations could send LGBTQ kids to conversion therapy, a treatment designed to turn people straight — which the Pan American Health Organization calls a "serious threat to the health and well-being of affected people." And they could deny young people contraception and abortions.
"If a 17-year-old who is sexually active wants birth control, the burden to prove that constitutional right is on the child," said Bryant. "They don't have their parents advocating for them and supposed to go it alone against the system."
Frank said most adoptions happen through the state's Child Protective Services, which would not be subject to the religious freedom mandate, though outside agencies that receive state funding would be. He said his bill "codifies" the choices adoption agencies are already making as they select parents.
"My guess is if you have an LGBT agency they're going to pick an LGBT family, and if you have a Baptist agency they may be more likely to pick a Baptist family," Frank said. "They're free to do that and should be free to do that."
Frank also said the bill directs state child services to ensure that other outside adoption providers without religious objections are made available to help would-be adoptive parents who get turned away by any who do raise objections.
But his proposal is just one of 24 pending bills in the Texas Legislature that LGBTQ advocates say encourage discrimination.