AUSTIN, Texas — Texas Republicans pushed the state closer to a law that allows publicly funded foster care and adoption agencies to refuse to place children with non-Christian, unmarried or gay prospective parents because of religious objections.
The Senate gave final approval early Monday, sending it to Republican Gov. Greg Abbott for his consideration.
The "Freedom to Serve Children Act" has received a late push in the Republican-dominated Legislature ahead of the May 29 end of the session. Conservatives have made creating exemptions for sincerely held religious beliefs a major theme this year, with tea-party-backed lawmakers inserting language protecting them in myriad bills, ranging from rules for the practice of law to pharmacists.
The private foster care and adoption organizations, which are paid by the state to place children with families, make up about 25 percent of the agencies working in Texas. Those groups say they face a threat of lawsuits for exercising their religious beliefs if they don't get specific state legal protection.
Many Texas adoption agencies admit they don't work with adoptive parents who are single, gay or non-Christian, and the bill could keep them from being sued. Supporters of the measure say LGBT couples will be able to find agencies without religious objections, but critics call is state-funded discrimination.
"This bill doesn't prohibit particular groups from adopting, it doesn't establish one faith over another," said bill sponsor Sen. Charles Perry of Lubbock.
The bill would be the nation's second allowing state-funded adoption agencies to reject families on religious grounds. South Dakota passed similar legislation in March.
Sen. Eddie Lucio, a Brownsville Democrat, joined Republicans in voting for the bill in the hopes it will draw more private, religious-based adoption agencies into the system if they don't fear lawsuits.
"It's about increasing capacity, it's about providing homes for kids," Lucio said.
Civil rights groups have criticized the measure as funding discrimination with public money. The measure has been opposed by the American Civil Liberties Union of Texas and LGBT advocacy groups.
"It is unconscionable that a bill would prioritize discrimination over the best interest of kids in the child welfare system, but Texas lawmakers have done just that," said Marty Rouse, national field director for the Human Rights Campaign and a foster and adoptive parent.