Legislation to preserve the religious freedom of faith-based adoption agencies in Oklahoma took an important step toward becoming law March 13 with the support of national and state Baptist leaders.
The Oklahoma Senate voted 35-9 for Senate Bill 1140, a proposal that would protect private organizations from being required to take part in the placement of a child for foster care or adoption when the action would violate their “written religious or moral convictions or policies.” The bill would permit faith-based adoption agencies to abide by their religious convictions in refusing to place children with same-sex couples.
If the measure becomes law, Oklahoma will join seven other states in providing such protections for faith-based agencies. The House of Representatives must pass the bill before it goes to the desk of Gov. Mary Fallin.
The proposal’s supporters are seeking to protect faith-based agencies in Oklahoma from suffering the fate of foster and adoption entities in such states as Massachusetts, where religious organizations halted their services rather than breach their beliefs by placing children with same-sex couples.
The president of the Southern Baptist Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission (ERLC) and the new and recently retired executive director-treasurers of the Baptist General Convention of Oklahoma (BGCO) sent letters in support of the bill before the vote.
“Faith-based adoption and foster care agencies ought not have to choose between providing children with loving families and following their sincerely held religious beliefs about marriage and family,” said Russell Moore, the ERLC’s president, in a March 12 letter to Senate leaders.
“Forcing adoption and foster care providers to compromise their sincerely held beliefs in order to serve children is unconscionable,” Moore said. Such coercion not only violates religious freedom, but it is “a tragedy” for more than 440,0000 American children in foster care and 110,000 waiting for adoption, he said. Of those, Moore said, 11,000 in foster care and 4,000 awaiting adoption are in the state, according to the Oklahoma Fosters Institute.
“Until every child is welcomed into a home, we ought to make every effort to remove barriers between waiting children and loving families,” Moore wrote. “A diversity of adoption and foster care providers increases the number of children placed in forever families.”
Hance Dilbeck, the new BGCO executive director-treasurer, and Anthony Jordan, who will officially retire in April, wrote the state’s lawmakers to express their backing of the legislation.
“We have been alarmed and outraged to learn of threats to the religious liberty and moral convictions of faith-based agencies in other parts of the country, such as Massachusetts,” Dilbeck and Jordan said in their letter, according to The Baptist Messenger, the BGCO’s newspaper. “In Oklahoma, now is the time to ensure equal opportunity and protection for individuals and groups involved in foster care and adoption. Indeed the very survival and future of such organizations depends upon it.
“Southern Baptists in Oklahoma have a long history of involvement in adoption and caring for children in need of homes.”
Advocates for SB 1140 are hopeful it will become law.
This bill would “ensure a Massachusetts scenario wouldn’t happen in Oklahoma,” BGCO Communications Director Brian Hobbs told Baptist Press. “We’re very optimistic that we will be able to take a positive step toward ensuring religious liberty” in Oklahoma.
Hobbs also is staff liaison to the BGCO’s Ethics and Religious Liberty Committee and editor of The Baptist Messenger.
The Catholic Conference of Oklahoma has been a leader in the campaign to enact SB 1140. The U.S. Catholic Conference of Bishops and the Oklahoma District Council of the Assemblies of God have given public support to the legislation.
Lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) advocates are primary opponents of the proposal, charging it constitutes unlawful discrimination.
“We will continue to fight SB 1140 in the House, we will fight it in the court of public opinion, and we will fight it all the way to the Supreme Court, if we have to,” said Troy Stevenson, executive director of pro-LGBT Freedom Oklahoma, in a written release. “Discrimination is not the Oklahoma Standard, and we will not let it become so.”
The states that have provided protections for the religious liberty of faith-based organizations are Alabama, Michigan, Mississippi, North Dakota, South Dakota, Texas and Virginia.
In addition to Massachusetts, California, Illinois and the District of Columbia have enacted laws that require faith-based agencies to place children in same-sex households, according to The Heritage Foundation.
Senate Majority Leader Greg Treat is the sponsor of the bill. Senate Republicans unanimously elected Treat as pro tem designate March 12. He will become Senate pro tem next year.
(EDITOR’S NOTE – Tom Strode is Washington bureau chief for Baptist Press, the Southern Baptist Convention’s news service.)