Ducey has final say on legislation to protect religious adoption and foster agencies from discrimination claims

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Adopted children in Arizona vastly outnumber authorized foster parents, and a bill on Gov. Doug Ducey’s desk could further narrow their options by allowing agencies to deny applicants based on their religious beliefs.

The bill would protect foster and adoption providers from discrimination based on religion, although it is unclear what problem the bill hopes to address. Even its Republican sponsor claims there have been no known foster or adoption providers in Arizona who have faced fines or other repercussions for acting in a manner consistent with their religious beliefs, including decisions to refuse services.

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But Senator Sine Kerr, R-Liberty, said so Senate Bill 1399 aims to anticipate discriminatory actions that may occur in the future, especially as civil rights protections are codified for LGBTQ people. She cited Illinois, California, Massachusetts and Washington DC as examples of places where religious agencies have had their rights violated. all four prohibit discrimination based on sexual orientation or gender identity in foster care or adoption in a certain way. Catholic Charities has not operated in Illinois since 2011, when the the state refused to renew a contract because the agency placed children only in the homes of married or single foster parents and referred couples in civil unions to other agencies.

The Center for Arizona Policy, a conservative Christian lobby group known for pushing for anti-LGBTQ legislation, supports the measure. A statement on its website defines the bill as protection for organizations with religious objections to current attitudes about sexuality.

“States have bowed to pressure to exclude individuals, companies and organizations that have a historical or religious view of human sexuality. This unconstitutional mandate compels religious organizations to either violate their religious beliefs or stop providing adoption and foster care services, which they have been doing for decades,” a statement read. fact sheet about the bill on their website.

Child advocacy groups Children’s Action Alliance and Coconino Coalition for Children and Youth joined 15 other organizations to sign a letter to the house of representatives oppose the bill. The letter notes that similar legislation in other states has led agencies to turn away potential parents, which will not resolve the current strain on Arizona’s foster care system.

“In states like Tennessee and South Carolina that have, through statutes or executive orders like SB1399, allowed agencies to use religious criteria, Jewish, Catholic, Unitarian, and same-sex married couples have been denied because they do not meet a particular criterion. religious litmus test of the agency,” the letter reads.

Both of these states are facing lawsuits alleging that adoption and foster agencies – which contract with the state – discriminated against a Jewish couple from Tennessee and one Catholic Mother in South Carolina seek to become foster parents.

You might as well put a credit on it, ’cause we’re going to get sued. And it’s going to cost money, a lot of money to defend it.

– Rep. Domingo Degrazia, D-Tucson

Critics of the bill say Arizona has a good track record of contracting with faith-based agencies, and enshrining the non-discrimination law in their favor would only open the door to LGBTQ discrimination. Currently, the Child Safety Department has policies in place that prohibit religious discriminationand the agency enters into contracts with 30 foster care licensing agencies across the state who recruit and certify potential foster families. At least six of them are denominational.

“We need to stop limiting the families and homes we can create for LGBTQ youth…and open our arms to LGBTQ foster families,” Rep. Mitzi Epstein, D-Tempe, said during a debate at the House on the bill on March 30.

SB1399 allows agencies to deny services and be protected from lawsuits, so long as the denial is consistent with the company’s religious beliefs. Critics fear it may have a chilling effect on potential parenthood candidates – a badly needed resource when there are, on average, four adoptive children in the system for each licensed family.

Proponents of the measure say it won’t stop anyone from being adoptive parents, but rather will increase options for adoptive children by attracting families and new agencies that were previously worried about protecting their religious beliefs. . But one report by the liberal think tank Center for American Progress refutes this, arguing that codifying religious exemptions ultimately creates barriers for expectant LGBTQ parents, contributing to strained adoption and foster care systems and costing taxpayers in the long run.

The bill seeks to protect the rights of foster parents as much as agencies, even though their rights are already part of state law. Current law prohibits foster parents from being discriminated against because of their religion, and SB1399 adds to this safeguard in a way that could introduce contradictions with other laws.

A provision in the bill exempts foster parents from reprisals when they use their own religious beliefs to raise their children. This ignores the temporary nature of foster care, opponents say, and leaves the state without recourse to resolve conflicting beliefs.

“If a foster family were to impose their own religion on the foster child, there is no one left to support the child now,” Epstein said in a March 31 House vote.

Senator Marcelino QuiñonezD-Phoenix, said this provision would conflict with current religious protections. State Law protects an adopted child’s ability to attend religious services of his or her choice, and because reunification is the goal of the Arizona foster system, the beliefs of legal or biological parents should not be usurped, a he declared.

“While a child is in foster care, the religious beliefs of the biological parents and the child must be respected…While a child is in foster care, parents retain their constitutional right to direct the education and religious education of their child”, Quiñonez said, Wednesday.

In 2019, nearly half of all adoptive children in Arizona have been reunited with their parents or primary guardians, and 66% of those who spent less than 12 months in the system.

This legislation allows child welfare agencies to deny reunification services to a parent who does not attend church or who has just divorced, for example.

– Marilyn Rodriguez, ACLU of Arizona

The bill not only gives foster parents more say in what religion children are exposed to, but also gives agencies greater power in approving reunification efforts with birth families. Among the long list of services for which agencies cannot discriminate include family preservation services and temporary reunification services, which allow children to remain with or return to their families while services focus on improving their lives and their safety at home.

ACLU Arizona lobbyist Marilyn Rodriguez sounded the alarm about the provision during a March 16 House court hearing, saying it could pave the way for agencies to reject reunification if the biological parents live a life that faith-based agencies disapprove of.

“This legislation allows child welfare agencies to deny reunification services to a parent who doesn’t go to church or who has just been divorced, for example,” she said.

Ultimately, the bill’s broad language and scope will likely lead to costly litigation, critics warn. Lawsuits may be brought against the state for actual or potential violations.

“You might as well give it some credit, because we’re going to get sued.” And it’s going to cost money, lots of money to defend it,” said Rep. Domingo Degrazia, D-Tucson.

SB1399 cleared its final hurdle in the House in a 31-26 vote, with only Republicans backing it. Ducey has until April 9 to sign the bill or veto it.

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