Child-place­ment bill opens re­li­gious fight at Capi­tol,

Austin American-Statesman - - FRONT PAGE - By Chuck Lin­dell clin­dell@states­ Con­tact Chuck Lin­dell at 512912-2569. Twit­ter: @chuck­lin­dell

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.

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