In the midst of the state’s tragic child welfare crisis, faith-based providers on Wednesday threatened to slow or completely stop services if a bill protecting religious “rights of conscience” doesn’t pass.
House Bill 3859, authored by state Representative James Frank, R-Wichita Falls, was left pending after hours of testimony during a House State Affairs Committee hearing on Wednesday. The bill would prevent the state from taking “adverse action” against any child welfare provider who acts according to their “sincerely held religious beliefs.” The proposal would provide an affirmative defense for religious providers who are sued by private organizations. Additionally, it would require each of the 11 Child Protective Services (CPS) regions in the state have at least one provider without religious reservations that could conflict with its duties.
Opponents of the HB 3859, including the Texas Freedom Network and the ACLU of Texas, have said that it would allow providers, such as child placement agencies, to discriminate against same-sex couples, non-Christians and unmarried foster or adoptive parents. They also worry that it could empower foster parents to push kids into anti-gay reparative therapy, deny abortion access or prevent vaccination.
When asked outright by committee members whether the fate of HB 3859 would determine their future operations in the state, representatives from five faith-based child welfare groups said they would suspend or limit foster care services if religious protection wasn’t codified into the Human Resources Code.
“Right now, our board has told us that there is a moratorium on our expansion of foster care and adoption until this is resolved,” said Randy Daniels, the vice president of Buckner Children and Family Services.
Some of those groups said their ability to serve abused and neglected Texas children is already hampered by lawsuits regarding their religious beliefs.
“Catholic Charities in Texas has currently closed or suspended almost all of our foster care programs,” said Jennifer Allmon, the executive director of the Texas Conference of Catholic Bishops. She said the Texas closures have come as a direct result of lawsuits or legal threats to their foster care services in other parts of the country. “It breaks my heart, and it breaks the heart of the Catholic bishops of Texas to end 166 years of orphan ministry because of continued litigation.”
Opponents, many of whom carried signs that read “My faith does not discriminate,” argued the bill would give preferential treatment to Christian groups with socially conservative values.
As both a reverend and a gay foster and adoptive parent, Carissa Baldwin-McGinnis, associate rector at St. Andrew’s Episcopal Church in Houston, said at a press conference before the hearing that faith-based organizations should be held to the same standards as other providers. “There is no biblical imperative to discriminate,” she said.
State Representative Byron Cook, R-Corsicana, who chairs the committee, accused the bill’s opponents of taking the easy way out and advocating for reducing the number of child welfare providers and foster parents.
“It’s easy to come in here and be against [HB 3859] but it’s a lot harder to give solutions,” Cook said. “We have kids that are suffering while we’re trying to figure this out.”
About one-quarter of child welfare providers in Texas are religiously affiliated. Lieutenant Governor Dan Patrick and other lawmakers hope to grow foster home capacity in Texas by leaning even more on church communities.
At the hearing, both supporters and opponents of HB 3859 accused each other of hijacking the CPS crisis to advance a political agenda.
“We’re so busy fighting over social issues that we don’t actually address abuse happening to children,” said Joshua Houston, general counsel for Texas Impact, a faith-based public policy think tank, in an interview with the Observer earlier this month. “That worries me greatly.”