Gun laws

Governor Greg Abbott signed several gun-related bills into law. These laws will go into effect Sept. 1.

A bill aimed at protecting child welfare agencies’ religious liberties failed to make it to the Texas House of Representatives floor this spring, but its main author, Rep. Scott Sanford (R-McKinney), isn’t giving up on it.

House Bill 3864 – what Sanford calls the “Hope for Orphans and Minors Expansion (HOME) Act” – would protect faith-based foster care and adoption agencies’ “rights of conscience,” it states. It would guard the state-funded agencies against “adverse action” from the state – such as loss of funding – for denying services because of religious beliefs.

The bill would also protect the right of child welfare service providers to deny access to birth control and abortions.

After a 6-1 vote passed the bill out of committee, it was “deemed to be too sensitive to be debated on the House floor,” essentially killing it this legislative session, Sanford said. In a statement released Wednesday, he called the bill “priority legislation” and vowed that he and fellow legislators would “do everything within our power to protect the rights of conscience for faithful Texans.”

According to Sanford, about 25 percent of Texas adoption agencies are faith-based, and without protection from such a bill, the state could ultimately lose their services.

“That’s the danger,” he said, adding that the bill is also a pro-life measure. “The state could lose big time in the domain of orphans.”

Supporters of the bill say the Texas Department of Family and Protective Services heavily relies on faith-based agencies to serve all children in need, and without them, thousands of children could be without help.

State funding accounts for only a portion of many agencies’ funds, as they operate also through monetary support from churches and religious organizations. Southern Baptists of Texas Convention (SBTC), for example, contributes “hundreds of thousands of dollars” toward Texas Baptist Home for Children, said SBTC communications director Gary Ledbetter.

Churches of particular denominations support the agencies because they work under certain, often biblically based principles, Ledbetter said.

“State funding or not, they won’t be able to continue without the support of churches,” he said. “If they’re forced to do things outside of what they believe … they’ll simply go away.”

The bill also has a tie-in with the U.S. Supreme Court’s recent ruling sanctioning same-sex marriage: HB 3864 would protect faith-based agencies that refuse to place children with same-sex couples.

Sanford called the Supreme Court ruling “judicial activism at its worst.”

The Pastor Protection Bill, legislation passed in June that’s similar to HB 3864, gives pastors, ministers, clergy and religious organizations the right to refuse to facilitate or participate in a wedding without threat of prosecution. Sanford wants similar protection for child welfare agencies.

But opponents of the bill say state-funded agencies don’t get such rights. Privately funded agencies, yes, but not those paid for with taxpayer money. Their mission then must be doing what’s right for the children above all else, religious convictions included, opponents say.

“The best interests of a child should always be their overriding priority,” said Chuck Smith, executive director of Equality Texas, which lobbies the Legislature on LGBT issues. “Their beliefs should not trump what’s best for the child.”

Concerned Women for America (CWA), a national public policy women’s organization, disagrees. Its members say passing the bill would be in the children’s best interests because it would keep more agencies operational.

“We need to make sure we protect the freedom of faith-based child welfare providers to operate according to their values, especially their sincerely held religious beliefs about marriage,” said Cindy Asmussen, legislative director for CWA, in a statement. “Protecting the religious liberties of private adoption agencies ensures the greatest number of children are cared for and adopted.”

Jeanne Rubin, vice president of the Gay and Lesbian Alliance (GALA) North Texas, said same-sex couples “have been raising kids for years,” and any legislation likely won’t change that.

She echoed Equality Texas’ take on the bill: “As soon as an agency takes money from the state, then they’re in a different position. At that point, they don’t get to discriminate.”

Others contend such faith-based agencies already have protection under the state’s Religious Freedom Restoration Act, passed in 1999. Officials with CASA of Collin County, which advocates for area children in the foster care system, aligned with Texas CASA, which claimed neutrality on the bill when it was proposed. “Religious freedom is already protected,” said Susan Etheridge, CASA of Collin County executive director.

There are plenty of supporters of Sanford’s bill, including legislators, local and state agencies and social conservative groups. Sanford’s office this week released a list of nearly 40 supporting organizations and groups.

The bill goes further than affecting just the LGBT community, according to opponents, who say it would allow child welfare agencies to discriminate against people of different faiths. Similar legislation in Florida, which did reach the House floor, ultimately failed because of that overarching factor, said Equality Texas’ Smith.

“[The bill] is written in a way where it could be used in a much broader sense,” Rubin said.

Sanford hopes it “won’t be too far down the road” before the Legislature addresses issues pertaining to the bill, with sights set on a time before the next legislative session. Otherwise, he said, legislators could push Gov. Greg Abbott to call a special session to consider the bill.

For local news updates, follow Chris Beattie on Twitter

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