In an exchange with high school students that was caught on tape, a Republican congressman from New Jersey was tongue-tied over the prospect of same-sex couples adopting children and suggested kids would be better off in orphanages than with LGBT families.
Rep. Chris Smith (R-N.J.) made the remarks May 29 when addressing student constituents in the auditorium of Colts Neck High School. They asked the congressman about his opposition to adoption by same-sex couples, according to a source familiar with the recording. A source familiar with the tape, who delivered the recording on Monday exclusively to the Washington Blade, said it was obtained in recent days.
The recording begins with Hannah Valdes, a senior at Colts Neck High School, telling Smith she has a gay sister who has said in the future she wants to adopt a child with her partner. The student asks the New Jersey Republican whether “based on household studies” her sister would be “less of a legitimate parent” than someone in a different-sex relationship and why she shouldn’t adopt a child.
In an apparent reference to the U.S. Supreme Court’s 2015 ruling for marriage equality, Smith says “the issue, legally, is moot at this point especially with the Supreme Court decision” and tells the student her sister is “free to adopt.”
Although the Supreme Court settled the issue of marriage, attempts are still underway to deprive LGBT families of the right to adopt. An increasing number of states have passed laws allowing religious-affiliated, taxpayer-funded agencies to refuse placement to LGBT homes for religious reasons. In the U.S. House, Republicans incorporated as a component of appropriations an amendment from Rep. Robert Aderholt (R-Ala.) that would penalize states and localities for having policies prohibiting anti-LGBT discrimination in adoption.
But that wasn’t enough for Valdes, who pressed Smith on why he thinks her sister shouldn’t be able to adopt. Smith, apparently having difficulty finding words for his response, said he believes “there are many others who would like to adopt who can acquire a child” and “the waiting periods are extremely long.”
When another student asks what makes these “others” more suited to become parents than her fellow student’s sister, Smith starts to reply, “in my opinion a child needs every possibility of,” without finishing his sentence. That might have been a prelude to saying a child needs every chance of being raised by a mother and a father.
That’s when Smith praised orphanages. In that context, Smith suggested even being raised in an orphanage without parents would be better for a child than having LGBT parents.
“Somebody mentioned orphanages before,” Smith said. “I mean, orphanages are still a possibility for some kids.”
One student is heard uttering an indignant response over the idea the congressman would rather have kids in orphanages than being raised by LGBT parents: “You’d rather have kids in an orphanage than with — ?”
Speaking to the Blade, Valdes said there’s more to the exchange with Smith on gay adoption than what’s heard on the tape. Earlier in the assembly, another student asked about one of Smith’s votes in 1999 in favor of an amendment that would have banned adoption by gay parents in D.C.
The student, Valdes said, asked Smith if he would still vote in support of banning gay adoption, and whether his views have changed since 1999. In response, Valdes said, Smith said his position hasn’t changed.
“Rep. Smith responded by saying that he does not approve of gay adoption because gay households are not healthy environments for children to grow up in,” Valdes said. “He then stated that ‘numerous household studies’ show that children that have heterosexual parents have better lives than children that have homosexual parents.”
It’s hard to know what “household studies” Smith was referencing. According to Cornell University, at least 75 studies have concluded children with same-sex parents fare no worse than other kids.
At that moment, Valdes said she thought of her gay sister and raised her hand for the question challenging his views on gay adoption, which was heard on the recording.
“After I asked my question and challenged him, an administrator cut in to change the topic,” Valdes said. “Rep. Smith started to discuss a recent project he was working on, but the auditorium was already filled with tension, and most of the audience was already talking about what Rep. Smith had just said. More students began to raise their hands, and the administration quickly realized that their students would likely be asking more questions regarding LGBT rights. Instead of taking further questions, the assembly was promptly ended and all of us were sent back to class.”
Valdes said Smith exhibited “prejudice and homophobic views” that “were offensive,” and the entire student body of Colts Neck High School was “in shock that someone had come to our school with these opinions.”
“We have an LGBT club at our school…which exemplifies just how accepting our school is,” Valdes said. “Prejudice in our hallways is not tolerated, so it was shocking to have an elected official — a congressman no less — stand in front of hundreds of students, openly shaming the LGBT community. I knew that there were multiple students in the auditorium who were a part of the LGBT community, and that they were simply too scared to say anything to this congressman. In a situation like this, I just simply could not stay silent.”
Despite the exchange, the school praised Smith for coming to speak with students. Brian Donahue, principal of Colts Neck High School, tweeted after the event thanking the lawmaker and saying, “Our students appreciate hearing first hand how our government functions.”
Donahue didn’t immediately respond to the Blade’s request for comment on whether Colts Neck High School was OK with Smith making comments against LGBT adoption at a student assembly.
Smith, a longtime member of Congress who has represented New Jersey’s 4th congressional district in the U.S. House since the start of the Reagan administration, has built a substantial anti-LGBT track record in Congress aside from his 1999 vote against gay adoption. In recent years, the Republican has repeatedly earned a score of “0” from the Human Rights Campaign on its biennial congressional scorecard.
Among his anti-LGBT actions include votes for the anti-gay Defense of Marriage Act and a U.S. constitutional amendment that would have banned same-sex marriage nationwide. In the early years of the Obama administration, Smith voted against “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” repeal and hate crimes protections legislation.
In recent years, Smith co-sponsored the First Amendment Defense Act, a federal “religious freedom” bill that would enable anti-LGBT discrimination, and voted for an amendment that would have barred the U.S. military from paying for transition-related health care for transgender service members, including gender reassignment surgery.
Smith’s office didn’t respond to the Washington Blade request for comment on the tape and either deny its accuracy or explain why orphanages are better for kids than LGBT homes. Also unanswered was an inquiry on whether Smith opposes the Aderholt measure pending before the House.
As the mid-term elections approach, Smith is facing a challenge from Democratic candidate Josh Welle, a businessperson and Navy veteran.
In a statement to Washington Blade, Welle drew on his experience as a veteran as he criticized Smith for suggesting orphanages are a better fit for children than gay parents.
“Chris Smith’s out-of-touch views might have flown in 1980 when he was elected, but his time has passed,” Welle said. “In 2018, in Central Jersey, it is unacceptable to imply a child would be better off in an orphanage than with a loving LGBTQ family. As a veteran, I fought on the front lines alongside men and women who gave their lives to protect and defend the civil liberties that our Constitution ensures for everyone, not just a few. Chris Smith takes us backwards on inclusion and basic human rights for all.”
Despite the expected “blue” wave in November, Welle faces an uphill challenge. Political observers have rated New Jersey’s 4th congressional district as a safe or solid Republican seat.
After the assembly, Valdes said other students thanked her for posing the question and called her brave, but she doesn’t see it that way.
“All students should feel safe and comfortable in their own school, and all people should feel safe and comfortable in their lives,” Valdes said. “Smith has done, and continues to do, the opposite of this.”
UPDATE: After the publication of the Blade article, the Smith re-election campaign issued a statement criticizing the reporting on the exchange caught on tape, saying the recording was edited to misrepresent him.
“Anybody can twist your words and make false representations when they splice up a tape,” Smith said. “It is despicable that someone thought they could score political points by distorting the truth and raising false questions about my record and the full range of topics at the assembly.”
The Smith campaign made public what it said was the full one-hour tape of the May 29 assembly at Colts Neck High School and a separate record of another exchange at the assembly in which he says orphanages aren’t the best option for children.
In the shorter recording, a student is heard asking, “So would you say that foster care and orphanages would be in the better interest of the child?”
Smith replies, “No. Lord, no. We have waiting periods for families to adopt children, often by years.”
The Blade stands by its initial reporting. The exchange reported by the Blade in which Smith suggests orphanages are better for children than adoption by LGBT parents is also heard in the one-hour tape. In the exchange the Smith campaign circulated, the question posed to him wasn’t about LGBT parents and Smith’s reference to “families” being better than orphanages is general and not necessarily inclusive of them. That exchange also is heard prior to the time Smith suggests orphanages are better than same-sex parents, which was the result of students seeking clarification of his initial response on families and left students with that impression.
In other words, the totality of the recording indicates Smith’s view is that different-sex family households are better for children than orphanages, but when it comes to LGBT families, orphanages are better.
Smith’s office and campaign never reached out for comment or clarification and hasn’t responded to Blade requests for clarification. The Blade was made aware of the statement and additional recording through other media sources.
In the longer, one-hour recording, Smith is also heard articulating positions against LGBT rights. In response to the previously reported question on Smith’s vote in 1999 against gay adoption in D.C., Smith talked about his opposition to same-sex marriage.
Smith said he has a “strongly held belief” and referenced former President Obama’s one-time opposition to same-sex marriage as well as Obama’s articulation of that view as a presidential candidate in 2008 at Saddleback Church.
“He said, ‘I believe marriage is between a man and a woman, and God is in the mix,’” Smith said. “That was from Sen. Barack Obama. Now he’s changed. He now supports same-sex marriage. My belief is squarely where it used to be that marriage is between a man and a woman.”
As for adoption, Smith said it’s “all about the best interests of the child,” and although “there are people who feel the best interest of the child is for gay couples to adopt,” there are studies that take into account “all kinds of factors.”
Ultimately, Smith said he’d vote the same way against gay adoption as he did in 1999: “I would vote the same way, frankly, as I did then.”
Smith also criticized LGBT rights supporters for being unconcerned about Catholic adoption agencies that say they’d have to close if forced to place children with LGBT families.
“There’s little concern from the LGBT community, which I find disconcerting, and that is that a lot of the best organizations for adoption have been put out of business because of their refusal, like in D.C., to facilitate such adoptions,” Smith said. “Catholic charities, which is one of the greatest humanitarian organizations in the United States for the poor or disabled, and for adoptions, they have now been denied the ability to do any adoption in D.C., in Illinois, in Massachusetts and in some other states because they believe the best of interest of the child is not that of adoption.”
No government is actively seeking to close Catholic adoption agencies. They have threatened to shut their doors on their own in the wake of the legalization of same-sex marriage because they feel they’ll be forced to place children with gay couples who marry.