Child-placement bill opens religious fight at Capitol,
The Texas Legislature opened debate Wednesday on the first of more than a dozen bills that would allow people, businesses or government employees to refuse to provide services based on their religious beliefs.
Supporters say the legislation is essential to protecting the freedom of Texans to practice their religion in ways that do not violate their deeply held beliefs.
Opponents argue that the bills would authorize discrimination under the guise of religious liberty, allowing believers to opt out of laws they don’t like in ways that harm others, particularly gay, lesbian and transgender people.
The competing sides clashed Wednesday in the House State Affairs Committee hearing on House Bill 3859, which would allow faith-based adoption, foster care and child-welfare agencies to decline to serve gay children or to place children with same-sex couples or into other situations that violate the agency’s religious tenets.
The author, state Rep. James Frank, R-Wichita Falls, said the bill was designed to keep faith-based organizations — which account for about 25 percent of child-placement agencies — open and providing a desperately needed service for a vulnerable population.
“It is not a license to discriminate. It is, I believe, a license to participate in the foster care system,” Frank said, adding that HB 3859 would allow faith-based groups to continue operating without compromising their religious values.
Opponents said Frank’s bill seeks to elevate the requirements of religious groups over the needs of the children they should be serving.
“The primary point seems to be to allow organizations to use religious belief to justify discrimination against LGBT children or families,” said Kathy Miller, president of the Texas Freedom Network.
“Even if LGBT families are the primary target, they would not be the only people to face discrimination,” Miller said, adding that HB 3859 could affect single or divorced people, interfaith couples and people belonging to a religion that differs from the child-placement provider.
State Rep. Byron Cook, R-Corsicana, chairman of the committee, confronted several opponents, saying Frank’s bill was a necessary option.
“These children are coming in from bad situations. We need more folks who are willing to be part of the fostering system, not less,” he said.
A second bill that seeks to accommodate religious belief will be heard Thursday by the Senate State Affairs Committee.
Senate Bill 522 by Sen. Brian Birdwell, R-Granbury, would let county clerks opt out of providing marriage licenses to same-sex couples if they have religious objections to gay marriage. Before opting out, the clerk can designate a deputy clerk to handle the task if one is “willing and available to perform those functions.”
If a willing deputy clerk or an area judge cannot be found, SB 522 would require county commissioners to appoint an employee — or hire a contractor — to do the job.