Two Republican senators have introduced a bill to prohibit the federal or state governments from taking any adverse action against adoption or foster-care agencies that decline to provide services that go against their religious beliefs or moral convictions.
Senators Mike Enzi, from Wyoming, and Rep. Mike Kelly, from Pennsylvania, introduced the Child Welfare Provider Inclusion Act of 2014 to "ensure that organizations with religious or moral convictions are allowed to continue to provide services for children."
Three chairmen of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops – Archbishop Salvatore J. Cordileone of San Francisco, Archbishop William E. Lori of Baltimore and Archbishop Thomas G. Wenski of Miami – have backed the bill.
"[O]ur first and most cherished freedom, religious liberty, is to be enjoyed by all Americans, including child welfare providers who serve the needs of our most vulnerable – children," the three said in a letter of support.
The Maryland-based Institutional Religious Freedom Alliance, which seeks to safeguards the religious identity and faith-shaped standards and services of faith-based organizations, says in its newsletter that the bill might be seen as an "anti-Stark" bill.
Former Rep. Pete Stark (D-Calif.) earlier introduced the "Every Child Deserves a Family Act," which would have stripped federal funding from states that do not require every private adoption and foster-care agency to recruit families and place children without regard to sexual orientation, marital status, or gender identity.
"Stark's bill would have used federal funding to exclude many faith-based providers from providing these child-welfare services; the Enzi/Kelly bill seeks to use federal funding to ensure that states do not exclude those providers from serving children and families," it says.
The Enzi/Stark bill can be compared to an amendment that was successfully promoted by Sen. Frank Church, a Democrat from Idaho, after the U.S. Supreme Court's Roe v. Wade decision in 1973, the group adds.
That amendment said any hospital or other federally funded program is prohibited from denying employment to a doctor or nurse because of the health professional's objection to participating in abortion or sterilization.
The Commonwealth of Virginia adopted a law with a similar protective effect in 2012, the group points out.
In 2011, an Illinois Senate committee shot down a bill that would allow religious child welfare organizations to turn away adoption and foster care applications by gay couples.
Rep. Paul Ryan, who is considered a possible presidential nominee for 2016, said last May he regretted voting to ban same-sex couples in the District of Columbia from adopting children.
"Adoption, I would vote differently these days," Ryan said. "That was a vote I think I took in my first term, in 1999 or 2000. I do believe that if there are children who are orphans who do not have a loving person or couple, I think if a person wants to love and raise a child they ought to be able to do that. Period. So, I would vote that way."
The bill to protect faith-based adoption agencies says its purpose is "to prohibit governmental entities from discriminating or taking an adverse action against a child welfare service provider on the basis that the provider declines to provide a child welfare service that conflicts, or under circumstances that conflict, with the sincerely held religious beliefs or moral convictions of the provider."
It also seeks to "protect child welfare service providers' exercise of religion and to ensure that governmental entities will not be able to force those providers, either directly or indirectly, to discontinue all or some of their child welfare services because they decline to provide a child welfare service that conflicts, or under circumstances that conflict, with their sincerely held religious beliefs or moral convictions."
Given that federal judges in many states have struck down state amendments and laws banning same-sex marriage as unconstitutional, faith-based adoption agencies are facing pressure.
Same-sex marriage is currently recognized in 19 states – California, Connecticut, Delaware, Hawaii, Illinois, Iowa, Maine, Maryland, Massachusetts, Minnesota, New Hampshire, New Jersey, New Mexico, New York, Oregon, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, Vermont, and Washington – and the District of Columbia.