Kansas adoption and foster agencies could refuse placements that go against their religious beliefs — including placements with gay and lesbian couples — under bills in two legislative committees.

Opponents of the bills say they would allow discrimination against same-sex couples, decreasing the number of foster and adoptive parents in a system struggling to keep up.

Proponents say that many faith-based adoption agencies in Kansas would be forced to close if required to place children against their religious beliefs. The bill wouldn’t change anything, supporters say, but put into law practices that are already in place.

The identical House and Senate bills, which would create what is called the adoption protection act, are in committees with hearings not yet scheduled.

The bills say that to the extent allowed by federal law, “No child placement agency shall be required to perform, assist, counsel, recommend, consent to, refer or otherwise participate in any placement of a child for foster care or adoption when the proposed placement of such child would violate such agency's sincerely held religious beliefs.”

They also say agencies may not be denied a license, permit, grant or contract because of religious beliefs, which must be in the agency’s written policies or other organizing document.

Who can parent?

The Kansas Catholic Conference, the voice of the Kansas Catholic Church on public policy, is urging people to write their representatives in support of the legislation.

They point to agencies in Boston, San Francisco, Illinois and Washington D.C. that have shut down because they were told to place children with same-sex couples.

Adoption agencies affiliated with Catholic Charities place children only with a married mother and father, said Michael Schuttloffel, executive director of the conference. Three Catholic Charities affiliates in Kansas offer adoption services.

“Let me also observe that any of the Catholic bishops would be ineligible to adopt a child according to Catholic Charities’ criteria for adoptive parents, and this of course has nothing to do with any sort of animus towards bishops,” Schuttloffel added.

If they were required to place children with same-sex couples, Catholic Charities in Kansas would likely stop offering adoption services, he said.

Kansas isn’t the first state to consider such legislation. A similar bill became law in Virginia in 2012. South Dakota passed one allowing agencies to turn away same-sex couples last year, while the Georgia Senate passed one just last week. A same-sex couple is suing in Texas over a similar law.

The legislation is “clearly targeted” at LGBT families, said Tom Witt, executive director of LGBT advocacy group Equality Kansas. He pointed to wording on the Protect Adoption Choice website (hosted by the Kansas Catholic Conference) that states, “LGBT couples have the legal right to adopt in all 50 states. Nothing in this bill changes that.”

In the past, several same-sex couples have accused the Department for Children and Families of discrimination.

Witt also pointed to wording in the bill that would protect agencies that receive government grants or contracts, while allowing them to discriminate against gay and lesbian couples.

“What (the bill) says is the state will still be intent on making LGBT families second-class citizens,” Witt said. “We pay taxes for services we are then denied. … It’s pretty clear they have no interest in the interests of the child.”

In Michigan, the American Civil Liberties Union is suing the state after a lesbian couple was turned away by the local Catholic Charities and Bethany Christian Services, both private agencies that receive state funds.

The Kansas bills also raise “serious legal concerns,” said Micah Kubic, executive director of ACLU of Kansas.

“Agencies are free to do what they want with their own money, they are free to believe what they want, but I think there is an issue of public concern when we say that taxpayers are going to fund and approve of discrimination,” Kubic said. “To write that into the statute book is not the status quo.”

The Department for Children and Families said Monday that it was still reviewing the proposed bills.

In December, DCF Secretary Gina Meier-Hummel made a sharp break from her predecessor, Phyllis Gilmore, who had dismissed allegations of discrimination against same-sex couples in adoption and foster care cases. State auditors had just released a survey of attorneys in which about 35 percent said gay and lesbian parents are not treated the same as other parents.

Meier-Hummel said in December she recognized that the U.S. Supreme Court had legalized same-sex marriage nationwide.

“Moving forward, I will have zero tolerance for any violations of the law,” she said.

The “Assessing the Adoptive Family” portion of the department’s policy manual does not contain any wording about sexual orientation or marriage.

As written, the bills would not apply to St. Francis Community Services or KVC Kansas, the two case management contractors for the Department for Children and Families.

An ‘overloaded’ system

The bills undermine efficient placing and threaten the wellbeing of children, said Christie Appelhanz, executive director of the Children’s Alliance of Kansas.

Most of the agencies the Children’s Alliance represents are faith-based, she said. The bill is particularly concerning since the foster care system “is overloaded” and needs more adoptive and foster parents, she said.

“Unfortunately, the debate has been really ideologically driven, so there hasn’t been a lot of room for the thoughtful policy discussions about what this means for kids,” she said. “We need all the capacity we can get.”

Proponents of the bill disagree, saying it will actually maximize placements.

If Catholic and other agencies are required to violate their beliefs, they will shut down, and “when you close down providers, that does not increase access for anybody,” Schuttloffel said.

Rep. Susan Humphries, R-Wichita, is one of the House bill’s 32 sponsors. As an attorney who sometimes works on adoptions, she has seen that faith-based providers often have families who want to take children who are more difficult to place, she said.

“The more providers, the more people are going to be able to adopt,” she said. “There’s a finite number of child placing agencies and we don’t want to lose any of them.”

Benet Magnuson, executive director of Kansas Appleseed, said proponents of the bill are trying to solve a problem that doesn’t exist. Kansas Appleseed is a nonprofit that works for foster care reform and other issues.

“We know that fixing the foster care crisis is going to require everyone pulling together in Kansas,” Magnuson said. “It is a really big problem facing families in our state. I worry that this bill works against that.”

By Katherine Burgess, The Wichita Eagle