Virginia House Advances Bill Repealing Protections for Faith-Based Adoption Agencies

The Virginia Catholic Conference expressed alarm at the bill’s passage, warning that removing the conscience protections could threaten the work of the state’s Catholic adoption and foster care agencies by allowing the state to deny them licenses, grants, or contracts.

Children walk down a pebbled path.
Children walk down a pebbled path. (photo: Unsplash. / Unsplash)

RICHMOND, Va. — The Virginia House of Representatives on Wednesday passed a bill to remove conscience protections for child-placing agencies, prompting worry that the state’s Catholic adoption and foster care agencies could be forced to shut down because of their views on marriage.

HB 1932 would repeal a section of the Code of Virginia which reads, in part: “To the extent allowed by federal law, no private child-placing agency shall be required to perform, assist, counsel, recommend, consent to, refer, or participate in any placement of a child for foster care or adoption when the proposed placement would violate the agency's written religious or moral convictions or policies.”

The current code also protects agencies from being denied an initial license or a renewal of their license, or from being denied a grant or contract because of their religious views about the definition of marriage. Former Virginia Governor Robert McDonnell signed the conscience protections into law in 2012.

The Virginia house passed the bill to repeal the protections by a 53-43 vote Feb. 3.

The Virginia Catholic Conference expressed alarm at the bill’s passage, warning that removing the conscience protections could threaten the work of the state’s Catholic adoption and foster care agencies by allowing the state to deny them licenses, grants, or contracts.

Virginia has three Catholic Charities agencies, all of which provide adoption and foster care services. There are more than 8,000 faith-based adoption agencies working with government bodies across the U.S.

“This bill would dismantle absolutely essential conscience protections Catholic Charities and other faith-based agencies rely on to do their high quality work to help children and families across Virginia,” the conference said in a Feb. 3 statement.

Religious agencies around the country are having to contend with state and local ordinances demanding that they match children and work with same-sex couples.

The case of Catholic Social Services of the Archdiocese of Philadelphia, for instance, is currently before the Supreme Court. The city stopped contracting with CSS in 2018 unless it agreed to work with same-sex couples, despite CSS never being the subject of any discrimination complaints by same-sex couples, and never being asked to certify or endorse a same-sex couple.

Before the relationship with the city ended, CSS served about 120 foster children in 100 foster homes. In 2017, the charity says it helped more than 2,200 children in the Philadelphia area.

The Supreme Court has not issued a final ruling in the Philadelphia case.

In July 2020, the Second Circuit federal appeals court granted New Hope Family Services, a Christian adoption provider in Syracuse, New York, protection from a 2013 state order that barred discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation or gender identity against applicants for adoption services.

In the final days of the Trump administration, the Department of Health and Human Services finalized a rule allowing faith-based adoption agencies to receive federal funding regardless of their views on same-sex marriage.

It revised a 2016 rule by the Obama administration that had conditioned federal grants on adoption agencies’ willingness to match children with same-sex couples.

Under that rule, faith-based child welfare providers in multiple states, including Massachusetts, Illinois, and California, as well as the District of Columbia, have been forced to shut down their adoption and foster care services because of beliefs that children should be placed with a married mother and father.

In the case of Illinois, more than 3,000 children were displaced after religiously affiliated adoption and foster care services had to close their doors. Catholic Social Services of Southern Illinois decided to cut ties from their affiliated Catholic diocese and operate as a separate Christian non-profit in order to maintain consistent services for the children.

In late 2019, the Diocese of Greensburg announced it had closed its adoption and foster care program, which had been operating since 1954. The Greensburg program also provided adoption services for the Pittsburgh diocese.

That same year, Buffalo, New York, Catholic Charities ceased adoption and foster care work due to rules that would have forced the organization to violate their religious beliefs. Catholic Charities had done work with adoption in Buffalo for nearly a century before the rule change.

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