House committee holds hearing on child welfare religious liberty bill

H.B. 3859 by Rep. James Frank, R-Wichita Falls, would allow faith-based agencies to exercise “sincerely held religious beliefs” while serving as providers in the state’s child welfare system.

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AUSTIN—The House State Affairs Committee heard testimony March 29 on a bill proponents say would protect the religious liberty rights of faith-based child welfare providers and opponents labeled a “religious refusal bill” that would allow discrimination against same-sex couples.

HB 3859 by Rep. James Frank, R-Wichita Falls, would allow faith-based agencies to exercise “sincerely held religious beliefs” while serving as providers in the state’s child welfare system. 

Protect conscience rights of faith-based providers

The bill specifically would ensure faith-based providers would not be compelled to make a foster or adoptive placement or contract with other organizations that violate their religious beliefs. It also would allow faith-based agencies to place a child in a parochial school and deny referrals for abortion-related birth control drugs or devices. 

Frank insisted the goal is to ensure a diverse and broad range of foster care providers to offer “as many quality homes as possible” for children in the system.

Impact on same-sex couples debated

Kathy Miller, president of the Texas Freedom Network, spoke against the bill, insisting it would allow child welfare providers that contract with the state to “use religion to discriminate” against LGBT individuals and families in foster care, adoption or other services.

However, a representative with the state attorney general’s office clarified the bill would not exclude an LGBT-friendly agency from participating as a provider or exclude LGBT families from foster or adoptive placement.

Maximizes number of homes available

Gus Reyes, director of the Texas Baptist Christian Life Commission, spoke in favor of the bill, agreeing it maximizes the number of homes available to foster children.

“This bill is a license to participate for faith-based adoption and foster care providers that have served the disadvantaged children of Texas for decades and have a proven track record of serving the best interests of children,” Reyes said.

“We believe it is possible to respect sincerely held religious beliefs and work for the best interest of the child.”

Some witnesses who testified in opposition to the bill asserted it could allow faith-based groups to cite religious beliefs as justification for practices that may be harmful to children. They cited the case of Lester Roloff, an Independent Fundamentalist Baptist preacher in the 1970s who ran unlicensed homes in Corpus Christi. Roloff claimed he should be granted a religious exemption to use harsh disciplinary measures with teenagers under his care.

On the contrary, Reyes noted, HB 3859 makes it clear no child may be denied medical care or other rights guaranteed in the Texas Family Code.

Furthermore, anyone who does not wish to work with faith-based agencies is free to work with other agencies or directly with the state, he added.

“This means no one who meets the state qualifications will be denied the opportunity to foster or adopt children,” Reyes said.

‘Protections for faith-based providers’

Likewise, Randy Daniels, vice president for program development at Buckner International, voiced support for HB 3859, saying it “provides protections for faith-based providers in fulfilling our God-given calling to serve the most vulnerable children in Texas.”

“We know that without these protections, many faith-based providers would feel forced out of the foster care space, causing even more harm to these children, due to the capacity shortages in the system already,” Daniels said.

HB 3859 balances and accommodates “the needs and desires of those individuals or couples whose ideas differ from faith-based providers, while ensuring inclusion of organizations like Buckner a place at the table,” he said.

“Underscoring that point: With respect to the placing of children with same-sex couples, we do not take a stand against this. We only ask that we also be allowed to live out our beliefs as we see them.

“The issue being discussed today is about the families we recruit as foster and adoptive families and the compelling needs of children—not about requirements of the children we serve, since we would continue to care for children regardless of race, religion, gender or sexual identity.”

The committee left HB 3859 pending, but some members noted provisions from the bill could be amended to other child welfare legislation.

 


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