By ZINIE CHEN SAMPSON
RICHMOND, Va. – Advocacy groups are asking the Virginia Board of Social Services to delay the implementation of new regulations they say would allow state-licensed adoption agencies to discriminate against prospective adoptive and foster parents because of their sexual orientation.
Equality Virginia, the American Civil Liberties Union and other groups said at a news conference Tuesday they’re seeking a suspension of the rules to allow further public comment. Under the state’s Administrative Process Act, the board must reopen comment if at least 25 people make such a request.
“The state Board of Social Services’ last-minute decision to strip protections against discrimination based on gender, religion, age, disability, political beliefs, family status and sexual orientation from the rules governing state-licensed agencies was done without any chance for the public to comment on this substantial change” before its decision last month, Equality Virginia executive director James Parrish said.
Equality Virginia lobbyist Claire Guthrie Gastanaga said the groups gathered more than 25 requests from individuals and organizations, and planned to deliver them personally Tuesday to the board.
In the event that the board determines the changes in the regulations don’t carry substantial impact, and thus refuses to reopen public comment, the groups are prepared to challenge that decision in court.
“A decision by a state agency that has the effect of sanctioning and authorizing discrimination of any kind cannot be said to be an `inconsequential’ decision,” Parrish wrote in a letter to the board chairman, Dr. Aradhana Sood, and Department of Social Services Commissioner Martin Brown. “This is particularly true where, as here, the discrimination being authorized ultimately will be sanctioned and facilitated not only by the Board but by the courts of the Commonwealth that must approve all adoptions.”
The board voted 7-2 on April 20 to reject the proposal to ban adoption agencies from discriminating against prospective parents based on sexual orientation and other issues. Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli, a Republican, had advised the board that it lacked the authority to bar private and faith-based groups from discriminating against gay people.
Parrish also noted in his letter to Sood and Brown that the board gave little public notice about the revisions, and discussed the changes in a closed session, depriving the public of the chance to hear or respond to the proposals. The changes only left intact a ban on discrimination based on race, ethnicity and national origin.
Virginia allows married couples and single people to adopt or become foster parents, regardless of sexual orientation, but bars unmarried couples from doing so. Then-Gov. Timothy Kaine’s Democratic administration added the anti-discrimination provision in 2009, but it only recently became a problem after conservative legislators and groups complained that it would allow same-sex couples to adopt.
Some church-affiliated organizations opposed the discrimination ban, saying that placing children with gay or lesbian couples would go against their religious beliefs.
But Virginia ACLU legal director Rebecca Glenberg said Tuesday that while the government should be sensitive to religious freedom, all state-licensed adoption groups are “engaged in fundamentally a governmental function” and should not discriminate.
Leaders of several advocacy groups spoke out against the removal of anti-discrimination language from the regulations, saying that children seeking homes would suffer if qualified and willing people were barred from adopting or becoming foster parents.
Beth Panilaitis, executive director of youth-advocacy group ROSMY, said that many of the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender youths that her central Virginia group assists are homeless or have been in the child-welfare system. Those who are in foster care or group homes have also reported feeling unsafe because of their sexual orientation or gender identity.
“If there are individuals or couples who are fit to provide a safe and loving home, it is not ethical to deny these young people that right based on discrimination,” Panilaitis said. “We need to keep in mind that the welfare of the thousands of young people in our child-welfare system should always be our priority.”