Topeka Prompted by lawsuits and other administrative actions in several states, faith-based adoption agencies in Kansas are now pushing for a bill that would grant them legal immunity if they refuse to place children with families that do not share their religious beliefs.
"The easiest way I can describe this measure for you today is protection of conscience, just like many other laws at the federal and state level that protect conscience," Austin Vincent, an adoption attorney in Topeka, told a legislative committee on Tuesday.
The House and Senate Federal and State Affairs Committees held back-to-back hearings Tuesday on identical bills known as the Adoption Protection Act.
The bills also provide that those agencies could not be denied licenses, permits or authorizations due to their refusal to take part in certain placements.
Nor could they be denied grants or contracts or be subject to fines or other administrative actions for refusing to take part in certain placements.
There are currently no laws or policies in place that restrict private faith-based agencies that do not receive state funding from placing children in homes based on whatever criteria they choose, as long as they don't violate federal law prohibiting discrimination on the basis of race, color or national origin.
But supporters of the bills argued that Kansas policy could change at any time with, for example, a change in a governor's administration or through administrative actions of officials in state agencies.
The bills would apply to both adoption services as well as placement of children in foster homes.
The bills are the latest in a series of so-called "religious freedom" bills that have stirred controversy in the Legislature in recent years, especially since the U.S. Supreme Court legalized same-sex marriage nationwide in 2015.
Critics have argued that such legislation would legalize discrimination against certain classes of people, particularly same-sex couples and transgender individuals.
But Vincent tried to pre-emptively dismiss arguments from opponents.
He told the House committee that faith-based agencies would sooner shut down than have to participate in placements that violate their religious beliefs.
"With that understanding," he said, "opposition to this measure is evidence of a few things. It shows intent. The only intent is to shut down those agencies that deny birth parents the assurance of placements with people of their own faith."
Deborah Snapp, executive director of Catholic Charities of Southwest Kansas, said her agency would shut down if it had to place children in homes that did not share the organization's religious beliefs.
"By our conscience, we would not be able to continue to participate in adoption practice," she said.
But Rep. Stephanie Clayton, R-Overland Park, challenged that idea.
"Let's say that you have a child that needs a placement," Clayton said to Snapp. "Is it your sincerely held religious belief that that child is better off in no home at all rather than be in the home of a couple that violates your conscience?"
Snapp responded by saying the philosophy of Catholic Charities is for the birth parent to decide which family to place a child with.
The committees also heard from some adoptive parents, including Devin and Melissa Penny, of Wichita, who recently adopted twins through a faith-based agency in their community, who said that adopting through such an agency was an expression of their religious faith.
Both committees plan to continue their hearings Wednesday when they will hear from opponents of the bills.