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Kansas Adoption/Foster Rules Update Snagged Over Whether Religious Agencies Can Shut Out Gay Parents

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Lawmakers are at odds over whether faith-based agencies can use their religious beliefs in selecting adoptive and foster parents, possibly excluding same-sex couples.

A polarizing debate over the role of faith-based adoption organizations, and their ability to exclude same-sex couples, has tangled an update of Kansas adoption and foster care laws.

A bill needed to revise the rules passed the House without a dissenting vote in late February. But it drew opposition in the Senate this week when a controversial amendment was added.

The amendment, offered by Sen. Molly Baumgardner, a Louisburg Republican, would let the state contract with faith-based organizations that make adoption and foster care placement decisions based on their “sincerely held religious beliefs.”

That, said opponents, would give such organizations license to reject same-sex couples.

“We should never use faith as a weapon,” said Sen. Lynn Rogers, a Wichita Democrat. “There’s a difference in letting your beliefs inform your political choices and letting your politics enforce your religion.”

Yet one side argued that the state needs help from faith-based organizations to increase adoptions and stable placement opportunities. Kansas has seen record numbers of foster children flood the system in recent years. Without language allowing them to make decisions based on their beliefs, church-affiliated organizations might not participate in the state system.

“This bill protects Catholic Charities and other religious-affiliated groups to continue … providing children with loving and safe homes in accordance with their religious beliefs,” said Senate President Susan Wagle, a Wichita Republican.

During earlier testimony on the issue in a House committee, Deborah Snapp, an official with Catholic Charities of Southwest Kansas, confirmed the organization would need such protections to continue working with the state.

“If we were expected to place children with families that were not consistent with our faith belief, we would not be able to continue to provide adoption services,” Snapp said.

The endorsement of the amendment by Gina Meier-Hummel, secretary of the Kansas Department for Children and Families, has drawn criticism from those who say it’s inconsistent with her pledge to have “zero tolerance” for discrimination.

“You can’t say gay couples aren’t good enough to be parents and at the same time say, ‘but we’re not discriminating against gay couples,’” Tom Witt, executive director of Equality Kansas, told members of the House committee.

Meier-Hummel said the protections were necessary to address barriers discouraging faith-based adoption agencies “from coming to Kansas.”

On Thursday, the Senate passed the bill, with the Baumgardner amendment, 24-12.

Sen. Barbara Bollier, a Mission Hills Republican, said she opposed passage of the bill because it sent the state “down a path to theocracy.”

Sen. Caryn Tyson, a Parker Republican, disagreed, saying it encourages the participation of organizations that the state needs to provide an important service.

“For too long, governments big and small have treated conscious (religious) claims as hostility instead of protection,” said Tyson, a candidate for Congress in the 2nd District.

Soon after the Senate vote, supporters tried to rush the amended bill back through the House. If the House had concurred with the Senate changes, the bill would have gone to Gov. Jeff Colyer. But opponents blocked the attempt on a 64-58 vote.

That sent the bill to a conference committee, where a small group of House and Senate members will attempt to work out a compromise.

Similar debates are taking place in states across the country in the wake of a 2014 U.S. Supreme Court decision that said family-owned corporations didn’t have to include contraception services in the health coverage they provide employees — if doing so violated the religious beliefs of the owners. 

Jim McLean is managing director of the Kansas News Service, a collaboration of KCUR, Kansas Public Radio, KMUW and High Plains Public Radio covering health, education and politics. You can reach him on Twitter @jmcleanks. Kansas News Service stories and photos may be republished at no cost with proper attribution and a link back to the original post. 

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