The Virginia state Senate passed legislation Thursday allowing private adoption agencies to deny placements that conflict with their religious or moral beliefs, including opposition to homosexuality.
The mostly party-line 22-18 vote virtually ensures the Republican-backed bill will become law. The House of Delegates has an identical version of the bill and Republican Gov. Bob McDonnell says he will sign it. Virginia would become just the second state with such a law, which supporters said was modeled after North Dakota's.
State Sen. Jeffrey McWaters, a Republican from Virginia Beach, said his "conscience clause" bill protects the religious rights of private child placement agencies, including dozens that contract with the state to provide foster care and adoption services.
"This is completely consistent with state and federal law," McWaters said. "It does not change who can or cannot adopt a child."
Sen. Adam Ebbin, D-Alexandria and the only openly gay member of the General Assembly, suggested all the talk about religious freedom is a smokescreen for discrimination against lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgendered people.
"It has always been about denying LGBT Virginians the right to form families, no matter what we say," Ebbin said.
He said the bill will endanger gay and bisexual children, who make up a disproportionate share of youths awaiting a home, by allowing agencies to place them with parents opposed to homosexuality.
"This does not uphold anyone's moral principles," Ebbin said. "It's morally wrong."
Sen. John Edwards, D-Roanoke, said agencies that contract with the state should not be allowed to discriminate.
"You have a right to exercise religion as you see fit, but you don't have a right to impose it on someone else using state dollars," he said.
Sen. Mark Herring, D-Loudoun, said the bill conflicts with the principle that the best interest of the child is paramount.
"Neither the interests of the placement agency nor their beliefs should stand in the way," he said.
The Family Foundation of Virginia, which lobbied for the legislation, lauded the Senate's action.
"The passage of conscience protection for private child placement agencies by a bipartisan majority in the Senate is a tremendous victory for religious liberty and for the thousands of children and families around Virginia that are served by these agencies," Victoria Cobb, the foundation's president, said in a written statement.
The Child Welfare League of America had sent a letter to senators earlier in the week urging them to reject the bill, saying it would just make it more difficult to place the approximately 1,300 Virginia children waiting for a home.
"These children have been through so much already," Christine James-Brown, president of the organization, wrote. "It is cruel to deny them a secure home with a qualified family that happens to differ from the religious or moral beliefs held by a particular agency."
If either the House or the Senate approves the other chamber's bill unchanged, it will go to the governor. If either chamber amends the bill _ which seems unlikely after the Senate rejected a string of amendments proposed by Democrats on Wednesday _ it could be sent to conference committee to resolve the differences.