January 31, 2020 at 10:01 pm EST | by Philip Van Slooten
Va. House subcommittee kills ‘conscience clause’ repeal bill
Virginia, gay news, Washington Blade
The Virginia State Capitol (Washington Blade photo by Michael Key)

A Virginia House of Delegates subcommittee on Thursday killed a bill that would have prohibited adoption agencies with state contracts from discriminating on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity.

House Bill 1051, introduced by state Del. Mark Levine (D-Alexandria), would have repealed a 2012 law that allowed private and faith-based adoption and foster care agencies to refuse to coordinate any child placement that “would violate the agency’s written religious or moral convictions or policies.”

According to the American Bar Association, adoption-based “conscience clauses” have been criticized for allowing agencies to refuse services to same-sex couples. Equality Virginia and other organizations such as the Family Equality support efforts to repeal Virginia’s “conscience clause.”

“Child-placing agencies in Virginia that receive taxpayer funding should work with all qualified families,” Equality Virginia Executive Director Vee Lamneck told the Washington Blade prior to testifying at the hearing that took place before the House Social Services Subcommittee. “Including LGBT families, to help ensure that every child has a safe and loving home.”

Levine testified today that one problem this repeal sought to solve is to enable more eligible parents to adopt Virginia children in need of homes.

“If an agency allows more foster parents to adopt,” Levine said. “It gets children into homes sooner.”

However, members of subcommittee was concerned about some faith-based adoption agencies becoming ineligible to continue to receive state funding under the proposal and leaving Virginia as a result, which happened in other states that have passed similar anti-discriminatory measures.

“This bill does not require any agency to close its doors,” testified Mary Rohmiller, co-director of state policy and policy counsel for Family Equality. “All agencies that perform child care services in this state are appreciated and valued. The faith-based providers are also included in that and we hope that they do choose to stay in the commonwealth.”

Both Levine and Rohmiller noted Catholic Charities chose to leave Massachusetts and Illinois after similar “conscience clauses” were repealed. Rohmiller testified those children were not displaced due to a partnership with “the state, the county, the closing agency and all of the other agencies in the area.”

Conversely, Jeff Caruso with the Virginia Catholic Conference stated, “There are at least eight different agencies that would be impacted by a removal of the conscience protection. The current law best accomplishes keeping all hands on deck.” And a representative from Patrick County Family Services added a question that seemed to resonate with subcommittee members.

“Do we get penalized because a particular family says no to a particular [LGBTQ] child?” he asked. “I don’t know based on the way the bill is written.”

State Del. Kathy Tran (D-Fairfax County) was concerned about this scenario, the number of children currently in the custody of Virginia’s Department of Social Services who could be impacted and a timeline for implementation which could “ensure children’s lives are not being disrupted.”

Levine stated it would take around six months for a new placement, if necessary, but emphasized that other states did not face disruptions as a result of a “conscience clause” repeal.

The committee was not convinced.

“I think this is one of the most difficult conversations that we’ve had as a committee,” said state Del. Karrie Delaney (D-Loudoun County). “We want to do what you are asking, to move towards this kind of policy where discrimination is not what we are funding, but we’ve got real lives that are being affected.”

The subcommittee voted to kill the measure, but Rohmiller pointed out to the Blade that it is important that the conversation has begun in Virginia.

“And we are hopeful that it will ultimately lead to the repeal of Virginia’s child welfare license to discriminate,” she added. “We will continue our work in Virginia and beyond to end discrimination in the foster care system and increase the number of qualified, loving homes available to children in care.”

Lamneck was hopeful by what they witnessed at the hearing.

“It seemed clear to us this morning that the majority of the delegates on the subcommittee agreed that all qualified families, including LGBT families, should be considered when working to place a child in a safe and loving home,” they told the Blade. “So, while we are disappointed that the bill did not move forward, we remain hopeful. We will continue to work with stakeholders and legislators over the coming year to ensure that this bill is able to pass in the 2021 General Assembly.”

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