AUSTIN, Texas (AP) — Texas' Republican-controlled Senate approved a bill early Monday that allows publicly funded foster care and adoption agencies to refuse to place children with non-Christian, unmarried or gay prospective parents because of religious objections.
The "Freedom to Serve Children Act" received a late push in the Legislature ahead of the May 29 end of session. Conservatives have made creating exemptions for sincerely held religious beliefs a major theme this year, with lawmakers backed by the tea party movement inserting language protecting them in myriad bills, ranging from rules for practicing law to pharmacists.
If Republican Gov. Greg Abbott signs the bill into law, Texas will become only the second state allowing state-funded adoption agencies to reject families on religious grounds. South Dakota passed similar legislation in March.
About 25 percent of the agencies that are paid by Texas to place children with families are private foster care and adoption organizations. Many of those groups admit they don't work with adoptive parents who are single, gay or non-Christian, and the bill could keep them from being sued.
Supporters say other agencies that have no religious objections will still be able to assist in adoptions.
"This bill doesn't prohibit particular groups from adopting, it doesn't establish one faith over another," said bill sponsor Sen. Charles Perry of Lubbock.
But civil rights groups have criticized the measure as funding discrimination with public money. The measure is opposed by the American Civil Liberties Union of Texas and LGBT advocacy groups.
"It is unconscionable that a bill would prioritize discrimination over the best interest of kids in the child welfare system, but Texas lawmakers have done just that," said Marty Rouse, national field director for the Human Rights Campaign and a foster and adoptive parent.
Sen. Eddie Lucio, a Brownsville Democrat, joined Republicans in voting for the bill in the hopes it will draw more private, religious-based adoption agencies into the system.
"It's about increasing capacity, it's about providing homes for kids," Lucio said.