How the LGBTQ-adoption bill came to Tennessee
Expectant foster parents who apply to the Tennessee Baptist Children’s Homes must “reflect a disciplined Christian lifestyle,” the agency’s website explains.
'Homosexuality,' the organization explains in a separate document, 'would normally be considered incompatible with the mission of the Tennessee Baptist Children’s Homes.”
Today, there are no Tennessee laws prohibiting or allowing private foster care groups to reject LGBTQ couples. But if a new bill passes the General Assembly, their discrimination would be condoned by the state, as long as it conforms to 'religious or moral convictions or policies.'
On Tuesday the House of Representatives p assed its version of the legislation.
The lead sponsor of the House bill, Rep. Tim Rudd, R-Murfreesboro, said he wants to protect faith-based agencies from 'frivolous lawsuits' by activists, but acknowledges no Tennessee organizations have been sued. Instead, Rudd said the bill is 'preemptive' and modeled after similar legislation across the country.
It's one of at least 10,000 bills nationwide almost entirely copied from model legislation over the past eight years. The breadth of the copycat legislation was revealed in an investigation by USA TODAY, The Arizona Republic and the Center for Public Integrity. Special interest groups introduced model bills to advance their agendas, the investigation found, and more than 2,100 of those bills were signed into law.
The Center for Public Integrity traced the faith-based adoption bills to conservative Christian activists backed by the Congressional Prayer Caucus Foundation. Their template is part of 'Project Blitz,' a legislative effort with the stated aim to 'bring back God to America.' The project provides a detailed handbook for state and local advocates to advance legislation.
In Tennessee, a member of the board of trustees for the Tennessee Baptist Children’s Homes gave a copy of the adoption bill to Rudd, the sponsor, according to the Baptist Children's Homes' president.
That trustee, Shelbyville lawyer John R. Bumpus, has dabbled in local Republican politics, and ran unsuccessfully for Congress and the state legislature in the late 1990s and early 2000s. In a Tennessean candidate survey he wrote, 'We seek to reform our government... and to renew traditional family values in our society.'
Bumpus did not return messages seeking comment.
Tennessee has most teens ages 15 to 17 waiting to be adopted
Dr. Christopher Harris knows what it is like to be rejected because of a group's religious family preferences. Harris, who is gay, was training at Vanderbilt University to be a pediatrician in the early 2000s when he applied to adopt. A representative at one faith-based agency told him 'they would work with a single woman but not with a single man.'
'It's a complete personal affront to me, based on prejudice, to say I am not capable of parenting a child based on some characteristic,' said Harris, now a board-certified pediatrician. 'It should be illegal.'
He turned to Jewish Family Service, which is now recognized as one of the few Tennessee private adoption agencies welcoming to gay prospective parents. Harris was finally able to adopt his daughter, who is now in her teens.
Pam Kelner, the executive director of Jewish Family Services, said that many private agencies already exclude people based on sexual orientation: “It’s been going on for ages, and now this bill would sanction what is already happening.”
Opponents say the legislation is rooted in fear, and that it would deter otherwise qualified parents simply because they are gay. Many in the religious community have spoken out against the bill.
“There are children who won’t be quickly brought into loving homes,' said Rev. Pamela Hawkins, a United Methodist pastor in Nashville. 'Our foster care system is just way overloaded.”
In 2017, more Tennessee children ages 15 to 17 were waiting to be adopted than in any other states, according to federal data.
Rudd, the bill's sponsor, dismissed opponents’ arguments as “a philosophical discussion” because gay prospective parents can adopt or foster through other agencies: “It’s not limiting anything,” Rudd said.
Taxpayer funds at stake
If the bill passes, taxpayer money could now flow to these exclusionary organizations, with explicit approval from the General Assembly.
Typically, the Department of Children's Services pays private agencies to find foster parents for children from troubled homes, and to provide supportive services to the parents and children.
Kelner from Jewish Family Service said that is where she draws the line: “If you’re raising your funds privately you have the right to decide who you’re going to serve and not going to serve. When it gets to programs that are publicly funded — that oversteps the separation of church and state.”
In Tennessee there were 81 licensed child-placing agencies that served 9,600 children in fiscal 2018 -- either through adoptions, foster care, group homes or some other format. Most do not receive state funds. They might only connect private parties for adoptions, for instance, but do not administer state-funded foster care.
There were 33 agencies, however, that did accept taxpayer dollars. They received more than $229 million in fiscal 2018. (A portion of that is passed onto foster parents.) Greg McCoy, president of the Tennessee Baptist Children’s Homes, said his organization chooses to not receive public funding so no strings are attached that could affect recruiting evangelical Christian parents.
Even if this bill passes, McCoy said it wouldn’t change the way they operate: “We’re not ever going to take state or federal money. It’s one of our cardinal rules.”
He said his agency would rather shut down than be forced to “break our convictions.”
This question of state funding was pivotal in a Michigan case recently settled between the state Attorney General and the American Civil Liberties Union. Two lesbian couples, and a woman who was in foster care, sued the state in 2017, alleging religious adoption agencies denied them services because they were gay. Michigan Republicans passed a law substantially similar to Tennessee's bill in 2015.
Under the settlement, faith-based agencies paid by the state have to abide by non-discrimination clauses in their contracts, and can no longer turn away gay couples because of religious beliefs.
Chris Sanders from the Tennessee Equality Project has organized more than 120 clergy from various religious faiths to protest the adoption bill and others they say comprise a “slate of hate.”
“It’s using everyone’s taxpayer funds to prop up institutions that will not serve every member of the public,” said Sanders.
He's one of the main opponents fighting Project Blitz bills at the state capitol.
“Obviously there is a lot of real power behind this project, and it’s really well organized,' he said. 'We’ve been hearing about it for a year, but you never know what form it will take in your state.”
Reach Mike Reicher at firstname.lastname@example.org or 615-259-8228 and on Twitter @mreicher.