The leader of a Texas civil-liberties organization formed to counter the Religious Right speculated in a radio interview May 27 that the state’s child welfare crisis helped boost a controversial bill headed to the governor’s desk allowing state-funded providers of child welfare to refuse service if it violates the agency’s religious beliefs.
Kathy Miller, president of the Texas Freedom Network, criticized the Freedom to Serve Children Act passed by both the House and Senate as part of a piecemeal agenda this legislative session. Its aim is to “radically redefine our centuries old understanding of religious freedom and allow it to mean that religion can be used to harm people and be used as an excuse for discrimination.”
“The Golden Rule has been thrown out the window,” Miller said. She described “the new plan to use religion to discriminate” in an interview with host Welton Gaddy on State of Belief Radio.
“Because Texas does have a child welfare crisis, I think that that crisis kind of pushed people to swallow using religion as a license to discriminate,” said Miller, head of the Austin-based organization which supports issues including religious freedom, individual liberties and public education while monitoring the Religious Right.
Miller said the measure “sets terrible precedent for other states” and encouraged citizens across the country to take note of more than two dozen pieces of legislation introduced this term trying to roll back gains for LGBT persons living in Texas.
Miller said in the two years since the U.S. Supreme Court ruling that legalized same-sex marriage in all 50 states “there has been a kind of fevered pitch from the far right to take away any sense of equality that LGBT Texans might have, to almost make the marriage equality as meaningless as possible.”
“[It’s] almost to say, ‘We may have to give you a marriage license, but we don’t have to recognize your marriage in all of these other ways. We need the nation to speak up, and we need people of faith to speak up and to really say ‘that’s not what my faith taught me.’”
The Freedom to Serve Children Act would allow child welfare providers receiving taxpayer funds to be exempted from any negative actions by the state if they refuse to provide services.
“That means a license for an adoption agency can’t be rescinded,” Miller said. “It means that children can’t be taken from a foster home. It means that they can do nothing to intervene if a child welfare provider says that what they are doing is acting on their sincerely held religious beliefs.”
“That includes refusing to allow same-sex couples to be part of their adoption process [or] to become foster families,” she said. “It also includes foster families that refuse hormone therapy for a transgender child or birth control or even emergency contraception for a child in their care.”
“It’s quite bad. It covers virtually every aspect of child welfare.”
While the legislation’s primary aim is to prevent faith-based adoption and foster-care agencies from being sued if they turn away same-sex couples, Miller said potential harms “run the gamut from discrimination based on religion.”
“A Christian organization can refuse to allow a Jewish couple to participate or a Muslim family to participate. It can be based on sex, so you can discriminate against girls. It runs the gamut, and the harms are real and they’re tragic, because the kids in child welfare are already in incredibly vulnerable situations.”
The bill authored by State Rep. James Frank (R-Wichita Falls), a deacon at First Baptist Church in Wichita Falls, Texas, is designed to avoid situations faced in other states where groups like Catholic Charities stopped adoption services entirely instead of allowing adoptions to gay couples.
Both the Baptist General Convention of Texas Convention Christian Life Commission and Southern Baptists of Texas Convention backed the measure.
Randy Daniels, a vice president at Buckner International, told lawmakers during hearings on the bill that trustees of the Baptist-affiliated agency had placed a moratorium on expansion of foster care and adoption, and in the future might “move our resources into other kinds of ministries” without protections offered in the law.
Gus Reyes, head of the Texas Baptist Christian Life Commission, responded to the “license to discriminate” charge by calling the measure “a license to participate” for faith-based agencies that account for 25 percent of the child-placing capacity in Texas.
“We believe it is possible to respect sincerely held religious beliefs and work for the best interest of the child,” Reyes said during the hearing in March.
The Texas Freedom Network was founded in 1995 by Cecile Richards, now president of Planned Parenthood and daughter of former Gov. Ann Richards.
Miller, who has led the organization since 2009, said infusing religion into to the child-welfare debate makes it even more troubling.
“We spend a lot of time talking about how awful this is as public policy, but I also think it’s really damaging for faith to have people asserting in the name of religion — and in this case it’s almost always in the name of Christianity — that discrimination is a goal,” she said. “I think that harms people’s understanding that faith is about bringing communities together, not dividing us.”
Gaddy, an ordained Baptist minister and former Interfaith Alliance head who recently retired as pastor of Northminster Church in Monroe, La., said recent actions including a proposed “bathroom bill” by the Texas state legislature “threaten LGBT families to a degree we haven’t seen elsewhere.”
“They say everything is bigger in Texas, and I guess that goes for attacks on minority communities, too,” said Gaddy, who served in Texas as pastor of Broadway Baptist Church in Fort Worth from 1977 to 1984.