By ZINIE CHEN SAMPSON
RICHMOND, Va. – A battle over whether child-placement agencies should be allowed to discriminate against prospective parents and children based on their sexual orientation has moved to the General Assembly.
Sen. Adam Ebbin, D-Alexandria, has introduced legislation that would bar Virginia from contracting with or funding agencies that discriminate against children or otherwise eligible prospective foster or adoptive parents solely on the basis of race, color, religion, national origin, sex, age, family status, disability, sexual orientation or gender identity.
“One major issue is whether charities that receive tax dollars should be able to discriminate,” Ebbin said Friday. “Adoption is a public act that goes through state courts, and no government agent should engage in discrimination.”
The Virginia Board of Social Services last month finalized regulations that strip out protections against discrimination based on personal factors, including gender, age, religion, disability, sexual orientation and family status. They are to take effect May 1.
Equality Virginia, the Virginia ACLU and other groups had opposed the change, saying that Virginia should keep the protections in place because state-licensed child-placement groups serve a governmental function- and thus cannot discriminate against prospective parents or children. Catholic groups and other organizations backed the removal, framing it as an issue of religious freedom.
Sen. Jeffrey McWaters and Del. Todd Gilbert have introduced so-called “conscience clause” bills that would reinforce the Department of Social Services regulations and protect private, faith-based child-placement agencies.
The measures would allow private organizations to deny placement if doing so would go against their religious beliefs- including opposition to homosexuality. The measures also would bar the Department of Social Services from denying or revoking a placement agency’s license solely on the grounds that it has refused to allow adoptions or foster placement based on sexual orientation, and would protect agencies from legal action stemming from such decisions.
“We just want to ensure that people can continue to abide by their religious beliefs and continue to provide services consistent with those beliefs,” said Gilbert, R-Woodstock, who said he introduced the legislation on behalf of the Virginia Family Foundation, a conservative Christian group, to protect faith-based agencies.
Ebbin said he knows gay and lesbian parents with children “and they are among the best parents I know.” He also cited the experience of one couple who have moved out of the state to be able to jointly adopt children.
Gilbert said his bill “doesn’t do anything but protect those with religious concerns” and that prospective parents in Virginia have “ample opportunities to work with other organizations that have different religious concerns.”
Equality Virginia and other advocates also have expressed concern that a large number of young people in the foster care system are gay or lesbian, and unless the state adopts a law that bars discrimination they could be denied services based on their sexual orientation, compounding the difficulties they already face in finding permanent homes.
“Every child deserves a loving home, and children who have been denied a loving home based on who they are deserve a chance to grow up as much as any other child,” Ebbin said.
More than 1,500 children statewide are awaiting adoption as of this week, Department of Social Services spokeswoman Eileen Guertler said Friday. In 2011, 5,085 youths were in foster care, with 2,442 of them entering the system in 2011.
Virginia has 120 local departments of social services, which administer adoption and foster care services, Guertler said. There are 77 state-licensed private child placement agencies that local departments can contract with to provide those services.
Adoption is a very detailed process, she said, and local social services employees along with private adoption groups make certain “discriminating judgments” in the best interest of each child, including considerations of factors such as age, race and religion.
“Adopting a child is a privilege, not a right,” Guertler said. “And we do have individuals who are gay that have adopted children and are foster care parents.”
Ebbin acknowledges the tough road ahead for his legislation, but he says it’s essential to work for “an enlightened policy” that provides for the placement of children in permanent homes, based on what’s best for the child.
“I don’t understand people who would believe it is better for a child to cry him or herself to sleep in an orphanage rather than having a loving home, whatever the orientation of the parents,” he said.