LINCOLN — No state official has ever told Brad Brown or Bill Williams that their agencies must place children with same-sex couples.
But the two men, who lead faith-based foster care agencies in Nebraska, worry about the future.
That’s why they urged passage Wednesday of a bill to protect child welfare agencies from being forced to choose between following their religious beliefs and keeping their contracts with the state.
“We’re here today because we see a trend in some other states that threatens what we do,” said Brown, the chief executive officer of Christian Heritage.
Legislative Bill 975 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.”
State 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.
“Nebraska can’t afford to lose one foster family or one foster care agency,” he said. “My intention is to keep every provider we can.”
Opponents of the bill argued that it would reduce the number of potential foster and adoptive families by allowing discrimination against gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender people.
They also said it would put the best interests of faith-based agencies ahead of the best interests of children.
“This legislation allows them to do anything they want,” said Barbara Baier, an adoptive mother from Lincoln. “All they have to do is cite their religious convictions.”
Some members of the Judiciary Committee denounced LB 975 as giving the agencies sweeping protection while preventing the state from taking any action against them.
Sen. Ernie Chambers of Omaha called the bill “preposterous,” saying it would give absolute immunity to agencies that are supported by taxpayer dollars.
“I would never put anything like this in law,” he said.
Sen. Adam Morfeld of Lincoln questioned whether the bill would put Nebraska at risk of losing federal funds because it would allow discrimination.
In its initial fiscal estimate of the bill, the Department of Health and Human Services said it could cost the state $29 million a year in federal foster care dollars. The department later revised the estimate to say it would cost the state nothing.
Doug Weinberg, children and family services director for HHS, said the change was made following more legal research, which concluded that the state is legally separate from those contracting agencies.
Weinberg testified in support of LB 975, saying the state cannot afford to lose any child welfare providers.
In Massachusetts and California, foster care agencies closed rather than place children with same-sex couples. Catholic Charities lost a contract with Illinois after referring unwed couples elsewhere.
Nebraska now contracts with 21 foster care and adoption agencies, of which 10 could be considered faith-based, he said.
The agencies recruit, train and support foster parents. The state also contracts directly with some foster parents. Together, they serve about 5,600 foster children over the course of a year.
Weinberg said the four agencies backing LB 975 account for about 500 foster children. The four are Christian Heritage, Compass Nebraska, Catholic Charities and Bethany Christian Services.
It would be difficult to find new placements for those children in the short term if those agencies stopped contracting with the state, he said. But he said other agencies may be able to meet the need over a longer period.
Weinberg said the state now has enough variety of provider agencies to safely place children with a variety of needs. He said potential foster and adoptive parents also have a variety of options.
Brown, with Christian Heritage, said his agency works only with married, opposite-sex couples who sign a statement of faith and are actively involved with a biblical, orthodox Christian church.
Williams, the chief operating officer of Compass, said his agency focuses on religious people and does not work with unmarried couples.
A representative from Bethany Christian Services said the agency requires couples be married for more than two years and be active in their churches.
But Marvin Binnick, a former foster child from Lincoln, opposed the bill. Now 27, he said he spent nine years of his life in foster care, moving through a dozen different foster care placements and four group homes or shelters.
He said he experienced abuse in some of the homes, even those supported by faith-based agencies. He also said he was placed with families without regard to his own religious beliefs.
“That litmus test of being a Christian isn’t enough,” he said.
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