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LGBTQ Advocates Fear 'Religious Freedom' Bills Moving Forward In States

Even after the Supreme Court legalized same-sex marriage, there have been efforts to pass a religious freedom bill. LGBTQ rights advocates believe lawmakers anticipate support from the Trump administration.
Alex Wong
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Even after the Supreme Court legalized same-sex marriage, there have been efforts to pass a religious freedom bill. LGBTQ rights advocates believe lawmakers anticipate support from the Trump administration.

There are renewed efforts at the state level to pass so-called religious freedom bills. LGBTQ rights advocates believe that's because local lawmakers are anticipating support from the Trump administration.

In Alabama, there's a bill that allows adoption agencies that are religiously affiliated to hold true to their faith if they don't think same-sex couples should be parents. The psychiatric community has found no evidence that having same-sex parents harms children.

The bill is called the Child Placing Agency Inclusion Act. When it was first introduced two years ago, the bill didn't go very far. But since the election that has changed. For the first time the bill is listed on the Alabama State Senate GOP agenda.

"This bill has been fast-tracked through the House of Representatives with support from both Senate and House Republican leadership," says Eva Kendrick, the Alabama state manager for the Human Rights Campaign, an LGTBQ rights group.

With the choice of Jeff Sessions to be attorney general, the Trump administration has picked someone who is likely to be an ally on these state bills. Back when Attorney General Sessions was a U.S. congressman, he referred to separation of church and state as something that was "recent," "unhistorical" and "unconstitutional."

Sarah Warbelow, the legal director for the HRC, fears that the choice of Sessions as attorney general is a signal to local lawmakers.

"A number of states have introduced bills for many years that would allow child welfare agencies to discriminate on the basis of religious belief," Warbelow says. "But since this particular executive order draft leaked out, we've seen a number of states really begin the process of moving those bills."

In addition to the bill in Alabama, she says there are similar ones based on religious freedom that are moving more quickly in Texas, South Dakota and Oklahoma.

Even without the passage of the bill, April Aaron-Brush says she and her wife have run into problems trying to adopt. They already have a 10-year-old adopted daughter.

But for many years in Alabama, only Aaron-Brush could legally adopt her. Then the Supreme Court legalized same-sex marriage, and now she and her wife are recognized as parents under the law. When they decided they wanted to adopt another child, they ran into problems.

"We've had several agencies that refused to call us back already because we were a same-sex couple — although we've got marriage equality, and we're supposed to be equal" says Aaron-Brush. "But at this point in time, we're still having hurdles to jump over."

Aaron-Brush says the agencies didn't explicitly tell her they were turning them down because they are a lesbian couple. But all their forms asked about a mother and father and at least one of the agencies has a Christian affiliation.

Aaron-Brush has thought about investigating and perhaps taking legal action.

That's why religious agencies want protection, says Eric Johnston, an attorney who represents several adoption agencies in Alabama with a religious affiliation.

"They anticipated there could be problems and wanted to — in advance — think it through and do something that would be reasonable and to the benefit of everyone concerned on both sides of the issue," Johnston says.

The bill's sponsor in the Alabama House is Rep. Richard Wingo.

"The bill is saying that: Do not discriminate against these faith-based agencies and force them to place children — foster or adoption — into homes that go against their religious beliefs," Wingo says.

According to Wingo, in some states, religious agencies have closed rather than be forced to put children with same-sex couples. He believes keeping them open helps more children. And he says only 30 percent of the adoption agencies in Alabama have a religious affiliation.

So, he feels lesbians like Aaron-Brush have alternatives.

Wingo won't say how he feels about same-sex couples adopting.

"It doesn't matter what I think," he says. "If you are a follower of Christ then what matters is what does the word of God say. What does God say about it?"

Advocates for the LGBTQ community fear that this reasoning will soon make it harder for their community to adopt.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Laura Sydell fell in love with the intimate storytelling qualities of radio, which combined her passion for theatre and writing with her addiction to news. Over her career she has covered politics, arts, media, religion, and entrepreneurship. Currently Sydell is the Digital Culture Correspondent for NPR's All Things Considered, Morning Edition, Weekend Edition, and NPR.org.