A subcommittee of the Virginia Senate on Wednesday approved a so-called “conscience clause” bill that would allow state-funded adoption agencies to refuse to approve adoptions or foster care placement on religious or “moral” grounds.
State Sen. Adam Ebbin (D-Alexandria), who is gay, said that although the words “sexual orientation” or “gay” and “lesbian” are not in Senate Bill 349, lawmakers clearly understand that it’s aimed at justifying the denial of adoptions or foster child placement for gay people.
“This would put into the law that they can be turned away,” Ebbin said. “The issue is simple –whether or not state dollars should be used or taxpayers’ funds should be used to fund discrimination in adoption and foster care.”
Ebbin noted that Virginia provides about $800 million a year to private, state certified adoption and foster care placement agencies.
Meanwhile, separate bills that would ban job discrimination against state workers and ban adoption-related discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity died in committee in the Virginia Senate this week. Ebbin was among the lead sponsors of both bills.
On Wednesday, the same day that the Senate Subcommittee on Rehabilitation and Social Services approved the conscience clause bill, it rejected an adoption non-discrimination bill that Ebbin introduced.
Ebbin’s bill called for banning discrimination in adoption and foster care placement based on a list of categories, including sexual orientation and gender identity.
Two days earlier, on Jan. 30, the Virginia Senate’s Committee on General Laws and Technology voted 8-7 along party lines to defeat an employment non-discrimination bill that Ebbin and Sen. Donald McEachin (D-Henrico County) introduced.
Senate Bill 263 called for protecting state employees from discrimination based on their sexual orientation and gender identity.
A similar bill introduced in the Virginia Senate passed in committee and in the full Senate in 2010 and 2011 when the Senate was controlled by Democrats. It died both years in the House of Delegates, which was Republican controlled.
Democrats lost control of the Senate in the November 2011 election, which left the Senate equally divided between Democrats and Republicans. The state’s Republican lieutenant governor, who has authority to cast a tie-breaking vote, effectively placed control of the Senate in the Republicans’ hands.
That enabled Republicans this year to gain an 8-7 majority on the General Laws and Technology Committee, which had jurisdiction over Ebbin’s employment non-discrimination bill.
Sen. Jeffrey McWaters (R-Virginia Beach) introduced the “conscience clause” adoption bill approved by the subcommittee on Wednesday. The bill doesn’t ban gay people from adopting or becoming foster parents. Ebbin and others familiar with the measure said it would not change existing state law that allows private agencies to approve gay adoptions and gay foster care placement if they wish to do so.
The legislation instead provides a state seal of approval to state-funded agencies that refuse to approve adoptions and foster care placement to a gay person or to other individuals based on religious or moral grounds, Ebbin said.
It also protects adoption or foster care placement agencies from “any claim for damages” from a person denied an adoption or foster care placement due to the reasons stated in the bill.
The bill was scheduled to be voted on in the full Rehabilitation and Social Services Committee on Friday, where Ebbin predicted it would pass before going to the full Senate.
“I think it has a pretty good chance of passing in the full Senate, too,” Ebbin said.
James Parrish, executive director of Equality Virginia, a statewide LGBT advocacy group, said the decision by the General Laws and Technology Committee to defeat the employment non-discrimination bill indicates that LGBT people are being treated as “second-class citizens” in Virginia.
“Virginia is one of only 20 states where you can still be fired from a state or local job simply because of your sexual orientation or gender identity,” Parrish said.
“This reality undercuts the Commonwealth’s ability to recruit the best and the brightest to be our college professors, our teachers and our other public employees,” he said. “It adversely affects our competitiveness and, ultimately, holds the potential to undercut the quality of our higher education institutions.”