Commentary Law and Policy

The Next ‘Religious Freedom’ Debate: Using Tax Dollars to Discriminate in Adoption

Erin Matson

In what universe is any private institution providing services in a competitive marketplace entitled to public funding? Apparently a universe where children without stable homes are denied the opportunity to join a loving family because of someone else’s bigotry.

There is a fairly straightforward plot to have religious exemptions undermine the rule of law, and it goes like this: Declare that one person’s actions or identity violates the religious beliefs of another person or institution—like Hobby Lobby. Insist the government subsidize the operations of institutions practicing illegal discrimination—like Catholic schools that rake in vouchers and fire pregnant teachers. And twist and turn the courts and legislatures until civil rights and human rights laws are turned into mechanisms for restricting the rights of people who have not yet been fully accepted as equals in the first place.

This, proponents say, is religious liberty, and these claims reached absurd new heights recently when Sen. Mike Enzi (R-WY) and Rep. Mike Kelly (R-PA) introduced the so-called Child Welfare Provider Inclusion Act (S. 2706, H.R. 5285). This bill aims to give a fundamental right to government funding to those adoption and foster care agencies that refuse to place children with families that might violate their religious beliefs. To put it in real-talk, this bill is explicitly about denying same-sex couples and single adults opportunities to parent, but implicitly its sweeping language could as well be used against mixed-race couples, ethnic minorities, and prospective parents of disfavored religions.

The federal government and states using federal funding to provide child welfare services would be expressly prohibited from “denying a child welfare service provider’s application for funding, refusing to renew the provider’s funding, canceling the provider’s funding,” or even “declining to enter into a contract [emphasis mine] with the provider” that claims to operate on the basis of sincerely held religious beliefs that just so happen to include discrimination against people on the basis of identity. Those institutions that claim to have been denied government funding because of their wish to discriminate would be granted standing to sue, and states that accept federal funding would be understood to waive sovereign immunity for any such claim. A state found in violation of not awarding a contract to a discriminating institution would be subject to a 15 percent cut in federal funding for child welfare services.

It’s presumptuous, and cruel. In what universe is any private institution providing services in a competitive marketplace entitled to public funding? Apparently a universe where children without stable homes are denied the opportunity to join a loving family because of someone else’s bigotry.

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It’s no surprise the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops is crowing with delight. This is not just about “religious liberty,” it’s about money! (While the Vatican is notoriously tight-lipped about its finances, in one instructive example the executive director of Catholic Charities Inc.-Wichita Diocese told The Wichita Eagle last year that about half of its $8 million budget came from government funding, mostly federal funding.)

In 2006, Catholic Charities of the Boston Archdiocese ended its adoption program to, as the right-leaning The Washington Times put it, “avoid placing children with homosexuals.” California followed suit later that year. In 2010, Catholic Charities of the Archdiocese of Washington shut down its foster care and public adoption program after the D.C. City Council passed a law requiring religious entities providing services to the general public to accommodate same-sex couples. This pattern continued in Illinois in 2011 and it’s not difficult to see where this is going, as 19 states have come to permit same-sex marriage and through lawsuits that number continues to increase steadily.

When it seems inevitable that marriage equality will someday be the law of the land, Catholic Charities appears to have two choices: stop discriminating, or get out of the adoption business. Instead, a third way has emerged. That way is passing a law that turns express discrimination into an entitlement to government largesse.

Real religious liberty acknowledges that Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof. False religious liberty is insisting that free exercise means the government must privilege a particular religious viewpoint at the expense of a secular public with basic civil and human rights.

It’s disturbing enough as it is, but it gets worse when considered in the context of a broader picture. Proponents of this most perverted take on religious liberty are working—and winning —a strategy to undermine access to birth control, so there will be more unwanted pregnancies. They are working—and winning—a strategy to undermine access to abortion, so there will be more unwanted children. And now they are working to undermine the availability of homes to those children, unless those homes follow the dictates of one particular religious viewpoint.

It may be that some are so naïve to believe that if you claim that sexuality is sinful, people will ignore their own deeply felt and hardwired desires to have sex.

But a more shrewd point of view reveals that ultra-conservative forces hate same-sex couplings because the religious right is, among other things, deeply afraid of a “European-style demographic winter,” as stated in a non-public strategic document obtained from the National Organization for Marriage. More recently, the media-savvy Pope Francis is urging his faithful to have more kids.

Connecting the dots between the attacks on birth control, abortion, and now adoption, perhaps the real desire is to have more babies born that can be placed into the homes of families belonging to a certain religion. And to add another notch in the belt of “religious liberty” crusaders who are completely, totally, and vehemently anti-government unless there is money to collect.

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