Divided largely along party lines, the Texas House approved a bill Wednesday that would allow faith-based foster care and adoption agencies to refuse to place children with lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender households over religious objections.
The 93-49 vote sent House Bill 3859 to the Senate, where similar legislation has been stalled in committee.
Supporters, most of them Republicans, said HB 3859 would protect the free practice of religion while keeping essential Christian organizations in the child-welfare system, which is plagued by a shortage of homes for children who had been abused or neglected.
Led by Democrats, opponents said the bill would allow for state-sanctioned discrimination under the guise of religion, favoring conservative Christian beliefs — and potential objections to non-Christian, single or LGBT Texans — over the welfare of children.
“I never want y’all to have to go against your religion,” said Rep. Mary Gonzalez, D-Clint. “But when we use tax dollars, those tax dollars should never be used to discriminate against any Texan.”
The bill’s author, Rep. James Frank, R-Wichita Falls, said he was trying to ensure that faith-based groups can remain in business.
“This is really to give quick, clear certainty to providers so they can take care of children instead of fighting lawsuits,” he said. “We need everyone to the table to help with the foster care situation.”
Four Democrats voted for the bill — Reps. Nicole Collier of Fort Worth, Rene Oliveira of Brownsville, Terry Canales of Edinburg and Ryan Guillen of Rio Grande City.
Two Republicans voted against — Reps. Sarah Davis of West University Place and Jason Villalba of Dallas.
Wednesday’s vote followed more than three hours of sometimes emotional debate on the bill Tuesday night, during which Frank said most of the opposition was based on “fabricated hysteria” by opponents.
“This provides a reasonable accommodation to those who are helping solve our foster care crisis,” Frank said. “This bill will make more foster care homes available.”
But Rep. Celia Israel, D-Austin, said she believed the bill was more about political posturing than helping children. “The idea that kids in foster care should be political pawns is just crushing,”she said.
Republicans shot down a half-dozen Democratic amendments Tuesday night, including one by Rep. Joe Moody, D-El Paso, that said providers could not refuse service based on a person’s sex, religion, sexual orientation, disability or gender identity — extending protection from discrimination beyond race, ethnicity or national origin as provided in the bill.
HB 3859, with 41 Republican authors and co-authors, would allow faith-based child-welfare agencies to refuse service based on a sincerely held religious belief. The bill does not define what services can be refused, but Frank said it would pertain mostly to recruiting and accepting potential foster families.
The bill should not affect the choice of families for foster children, Frank said, because those decisions are made by Child Protective Services and organizations that would not be granted the right of religious refusal.
Democrats, however, feared the bill would give foster parents the right to deny medical care — including contraceptives, abortions and vaccines — that violate a sincerely held religious belief.
But Frank said the bill, as well as numerous other parts of state law, requires that child placements be done with the child’s best interests in mind. “This does not impact the medical care of the child, no matter how many times it’s said,” he said.
HB 3859 also was amended to require that, if a child welfare agency declines to serve a prospective foster or adoptive family, the agency also must provide contact information for another organization that will.
“Nothing in this bill is going to prevent anyone from entering the foster care system,” Frank said.