A package of three bills in Michigan that would allow adoption agencies to turn away parents on religious grounds is headed to the full senate after passing a committee Wednesday on a 4-1 vote. Critics contend they are tailored to let agencies refuse adoption to LGBT couples.
Senate Majority Leader Arlan Meekhof believes his fellow Republican senators will back the bills, his spokesperson, Amber McCann, told BuzzFeed News. "The legislation is a personal priority for the Majority Leader and he would like to see these signed into law."
Sen. Meekhof has not yet tallied the votes in his caucus, McCann continued, "but in general, he thinks there is support in the caucus for the policy." Republicans control more than two-thirds of the seats in Michigan's state senate.
The Michigan House of Representatives approved the bills in March. If approved by the senate, the bills will go to Gov. Rick Snyder who has been elusive about whether he will sign or veto the bills.
The loudest pleas before the Senate's Committee on Families, Children, and Seniors on Wednesday came from religious adoption agencies, which argued that the right to refuse placing children in certain households is critical for their survival.
Approving House Bills 4188-1490 would allow service agencies "to continue helping children while honoring our beliefs," said Vicki Schultz, CEO of Catholic Charities of Shiawassee & Genesee Counties.
If the legislature does not pass the bills, she argued, it will have the effect of “ultimately forcing us out of adoption services.”
Schultz said her agency has facilitated 166 adoptions in the past five years.
Democratic Sen. Bert Johnson, who noted there are an estimated 3,000 children in Michigan awaiting adoption, cast the lone dissenting vote against the bills.
“I don’t think this legislation is appropriate," he said. "I think it is bad policy, and I don’t think it helps the kids of the state of Michigan.”
According to House Bill 4188, “A child placing agency shall not be required to provide any services if those services conflict with, or provide any services under circumstances that conflict with, the child placing agency's sincerely held religious beliefs contained in a written policy, statement of faith, or other document adhered to by the child placing agency."
It would also bar the state from retaliating against any agency that refuses adoption on religious grounds.
An adoption agency that refuses a parent on religious grounds would be obligated to refer them to another agency or a state website that lists all the licensed adoption agencies in Michigan, of which there are 105, according to the legislation.
The Republican-backed bills are more narrowly tailored versions of Religious Freedom Restoration Acts, which have drawn intense criticism in Indiana and Arkansas. Like those acts, the Michigan adoption bills have sparked complaints from critics who fear the laws would become vehicles to refuse service to LGBT people. Proponents contend the legislation protects exercise of faith from government overreach.
Sam Inglot, a spokesman for Progress Michigan, said that after a "backlash" to religious freedom bills over the last two months, "these adoption bills are just the next pivot in this attempt to enshrine discrimination."
One example of that backlash: Snyder vowed to veto his state’s Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA) unless lawmakers also passed bill that barred LGBT discrimination.
"If they can't get a RFRA bill statewide," Inglot told BuzzFeed News, "they will take it to a specific industry, just currying favor with the far right of the conservative movement. But it is still advancing the same basic concept that religion should be used to discriminate against people."
Asked by BuzzFeed News if Snyder would veto or sign the package of bills, his press secretary, Sara Wurfel, would only say that the governor had "raised concerns in earlier and current versions" and that his office will be closely reviewing the latest changes while working with legislators.
"The governor and administration have a strong commitment to ensuring the most responsive, effective adoption system possible and we’ve made key progress in strengthening children’s services and matching kids in foster care with permanent families," Wurfel said. "That is always the outcome we need to help meet."
Speaking for the senate majority leader, McCann said, "Senator Meekhof has discussed the issue with the Governor and I expect there will be additional discussion on this topic," adding that the governor "has not specifically identified any concerns."
McCann noted that the adoption bill has been mentioned in news stories along with the RFRA bill, which is currently sitting in the Senate. She said, "The Governor has been vocal in his opposition to RFRA."
Tom Hickson, vice president for public policy and advocacy at the Michigan Catholic Conference, told the senate committee that the bills "are not anti-anything," but instead will be “promoting diversity.”
Hickson argued that critics have a “very narrow agenda” and that no parents will be shut out of adoption.
Michigan's “wide variety of agencies combine to make an outstanding network of providers to make sure there is something culturally and religiously appropriate for everyone," he said.