LINCOLN — A state senator says Nebraska should cut off federal funding for some faith-based organizations that provide foster care services if an investigation shows they engage in religious discrimination.

Sen. Adam Morfeld of Lincoln sent a letter late Monday afternoon asking for a formal investigation of three faith-based groups whose representatives testified last week during a public hearing at the State Capitol. They said they work only with married, opposite-sex couples who are actively involved in Christian churches.

Morfeld sent his letter to Courtney Phillips, chief executive officer for the Nebraska Department of Health and Human Services.

"Should the department discover any form of discrimination either in hiring agency employees or in providing services to the public, I request you immediately develop a plan to terminate that agency's contract with the state," Morfeld wrote.

The agencies in question are Christian Heritage, Compass Nebraska and Bethany Christian Services.

Bill Williams, chief operating officer of Compass Nebraska, said his organization never turns away children based on their religious affiliation or sexual orientation. But the nonprofit group works with churches to find couples who the organization then assists in becoming foster parents.

"If faith-based agencies can't serve the vulnerable people of Nebraska, are we going to shut down all the halfway houses, all the soup kitchens? Because the majority of those are run by faith-based organizations," Williams said.

Messages left after business hours with the two other organizations were not returned.

Kathie Osterman, spokeswoman for HHS, said the agency received Morfeld's letter Monday and was reviewing it.

Williams and representatives of the other groups testified in support of Legislative Bill 975, which would bar the state from taking action against foster care and adoption agencies that refuse to provide, facilitate or refer for services based on the agencies' "sincerely held religious beliefs." The hearing was before the Judiciary Committee, of which Morfeld is a member.

Sen. Mark Kolterman of Seward said he introduced the bill to ensure that Nebraska has as many foster care and adoption agencies as possible to meet the needs of children in state care. Kolterman said late Monday he hadn't seen Morfeld's letter and therefore couldn't comment on it.

The dispute involves a 2002 executive order by President George W. Bush, which provided protections for faith-based groups that offer protective services for adults and children. The order said such organizations should not be allowed to discriminate against those receiving the services on the "basis of religion, a religious belief, a refusal to hold a religious belief, or a refusal to actively participate in a religious practice."

"I'm not forcing them to shut down," Morfeld said. "If they want to use federal funds to provide foster placements, they have to follow federal law."

Williams said he hoped to have an honest, open discussion with lawmakers when he testified at last week's hearing.

"I think Morfeld's letter shows the threat to faith-based organizations," Williams said. "It exists, and he represents it."

Contact the writer: 402-473-9587, joe.duggan@owh.com

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