Private adoption agencies that receive state funding could refuse to provide services based on religious faith and other priorities under a last-minute change swiftly approved Thursday evening by Republicans in a Georgia Senate committee.
Gay-rights advocates and Democrats in the legislature immediately blasted the change as discriminatory against gay couples. The state's top official overseeing Georgia's foster care and adoption systems also warned during Thursday's committee meeting that the change could violate federal anti-discrimination law and risk millions of dollars in federal funding.
The bill would allow adoption agencies to refuse a state agency's referral of adoptive or foster parents based broadly on the "child-placing agency's mission."
Seven Republican members of the Senate Judiciary Committee supported the amendment to a broader bill updating adoption law; four Democrats on the panel voted no. State Sen. William Ligon, R-Brunswick, who proposed the change defended it as a way to increase the number of adoption agencies that would work with the state.
"When you have a group that has a mission statement that is meeting a need in a community, then we should do all that we can to ensure those needs are met and to encourage that," Ligon said.
Democrats on the panel, though, said it would excuse discrimination for a variety of reasons, including a potential foster or adoptive parents' sexuality, and still allow the adoption agency to receive tax dollars. State Sen. Elena Parent, D-Atlanta, said private adoption agencies can make decisions based on religious beliefs or other priorities but shouldn't be able to receive state funds.
"You can't then turn around and say 'You, person who helped pay the taxes I now am getting, are not worthy of being served by me," Parent said. "You just can't do that."
The bill now moves to the Senate's Rules Committee, which determines whether proposals receive a vote by the full chamber.
It's not clear whether leadership in the GOP-controlled Senate will help push the bill to a floor vote before lawmakers adjourn at the end of March. Senate leaders bottled up a broad "religious freedom" proposal introduced in February, which supporters said was intended to protect people acting on religious belief but gay-rights advocates feared would excuse discrimination.
If it did pass the Senate, the bill will return to the House for debate. Similar legislation is pending in several states.
Rep. Bert Reeves, R-Marietta, objected making the amendment to his broader bill on adoption law. Reeves said he received the changes about 90 minutes before appearing at the meeting.
Bobby Cagle, director of the Division of Family and Children Services, told senators that the change could violate federal anti-discrimination laws, jeopardizing "several hundred million dollars" each year used for child welfare services. Adoption agencies that sign contracts with the state to place children in foster care or adoption agree to follow federal laws prohibiting discrimination based on race, national origin, gender, age and disabilities, Cagle said.
Gay-rights advocates said they're worried that it also could allow adoption agencies to make placement decisions against LGBT couples.
"We have a foster care crisis in Georgia that would only be exacerbated by this language that could jeopardize hundreds of millions of dollars in federal funding and deprive children of a loving and caring home because the adoption agency refuses to consider a couple because of who they are rather than the quality of the home they would provide," said Jeff Graham, executive director of the advocacy group Georgia Equality.