Fighting for children against religious-exemption laws

As a growing number of states allow child-welfare agencies to discriminate against LGBT parents and LGBT youth in care, a new campaign is fighting back — but it needs our help and our stories.

The Every Child Deserves a Family campaign (ECDF), launched last December, brings together dozens of LGBT, child-welfare, faith-based and civil-rights organizations into a coalition chaired by Family Equality Council and PFLAG. It aims to promote the interests of all children in the child-welfare system by increasing their access to qualified caregivers, and to ensure LGBT youth in the system get safe, supportive care. In the current era, that means resisting those using religion to discriminate.

A growing threat

Michigan, Mississippi, North Dakota and Virginia have — for several years — allowed child-welfare agencies to cite their religious beliefs or moral convictions as reasons to reject otherwise qualified parents, including LGBT ones, single ones and ones of different religions. In 2017, similar bills passed in Alabama, South Dakota and Texas, and others are pending in Oklahoma and Georgia. Most also allow discrimination against LGBT children in care, which could mean placing them with a family that does not support their LGBT identity, or even wishes to subject them to widely discredited and damaging “conversion therapy.”

Only three states plus D.C. explicitly protect prospective foster and adoptive parents against discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity; five more protect based on sexual orientation alone.

The danger is at the federal level too. The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) on Jan. 18 announced a new rule that will allow health-care workers to refuse medical services if providing them violates their religious or moral beliefs. A new Conscience and Religious Freedom Division within its Office for Civil Rights will enforce it. While the rule targets medical procedures, including abortion, sterilization and assisted suicide, Julie Kruse, a federal policy advocate at Family Equality, said in an interview that HHS’ language and actions seem to indicate they intend the division’s scope to encompass all of HHS’ activities, including human services such as adoption and foster care.

The need for homes

Federal data indicates more than 440,000 children are currently in foster care, 117,000 of whom are waiting for adoption. More than 20,000 children age out of the system each year without finding a permanent family, putting them more at risk for joblessness, homelessness, incarceration and other problems.

LGBT parents “can be part of the solution,” said Kruse, citing a study from UCLA’s Williams Institute that indicated approximately 2-million LGB adults were interested in adopting.

And LGBT youth are overrepresented in foster care, with studies showing they likely had more foster placements (less permanency), and are more likely to run away, or have been homeless, kicked out or trafficked.

A broad campaign

The new ECDF campaign grew out of earlier work by Family Equality and other organizations to support the bipartisan “Every Child Deserves a Family Act.” The bill would withhold federal child-welfare funds from states that discriminate against LGBT prospective parents or LGBT youth in care, and allow redress in federal courts. With the growing number of state laws intended to withhold funds from those who don’t allow discrimination, however, and an anti-LGBT federal administration, “we needed to have a combined federal and state campaign,” Kruse said.

Frank J. Bewkes, policy analyst at the Center for American Progress (CAP), one of the coalition’s founding members, explained in an interview, “While CAP believes that the free exercise of religion is a fundamental American value, we’re increasingly seeing that right being used as a weapon instead of a shield, which we think is a corruption of its purpose.”

Now, he said, “that weapon is harming some of our most vulnerable youths. With the ECDF campaign, we’re mobilizing to combat these religious-exemption bills for child-placement agencies as they arise, trying to be more offensive in our strategy, or at the very least, more unified and organized in our defense.”

Kruse hopes the new campaign will build on past successes. Family Equality partnered with other advocates to defeat discriminatory child-welfare bills in Florida, Georgia and Oklahoma, and defeated ones in Alabama, Michigan and Texas three times before they passed. They are now on the ground again in Oklahoma and Georgia, working with local groups and national organizations such as Lambda Legal to combat new bills there.

The need for stories

To support the campaign, Family Equality and CAP have launched “Welcoming All Families,” an initiative to collect stories of anti-LGBT discrimination (and the benefits of inclusion) in adoption and foster care. They want stories from LGBT adoptive and foster parents, current or former adoptees and foster youth, child-welfare providers, faith leaders and allies to share with state and federal elected officials and use in media placements, videos and reports.

Anti-LGBT discrimination in the child-welfare system “is a topic that all too often lacks coverage,” Bewkes explained. “We need to show how harmful these laws are. We also want to hear positive stories that we can hold up and say, ‘That’s a family; that’s love,’ because those are messages that any audience can understand.”

Kruse said her goal is to get stories from all 435 Congressional districts across the country. Visit to submit yours.

A plan for action

People should also visit to learn more and sign up for action alerts, Kruse advised.

Additionally, they can give the new HHS rule feedback through March 27. Visit and search for “Protecting Statutory Conscience Rights in Health Care.”

Kruse also encouraged people to ask their employers to oppose religious-exemption legislation that would harm children in care. She noted the many companies that took action against broader anti-LGBT bills in North Carolina and Indiana because they wanted the states in which they’re based to be welcoming to LGBT employees. Similarly, “once they realize that their LGBT employees may want to form families, they’ll realize this is an important business decision for them, too,” she added. “I think it’s simply a question of getting the education out there and building that support.”

People should also ask their members of Congress to cosponsor the Every Child Deserves a Family Act, she said. Even though the current Congress is unlikely to pass it, Kruse feels that if the Democrats regain a majority in the fall elections, the bill could make it into law.

Another way to help is through letters to the editor, “saying that these discriminatory bills are out there, that they are increasing in number, and that they harm kids,” she suggested.

Kruse referenced a Public Religion Research Institute survey from last September that found 68 percent of Americans oppose discrimination against same-sex couples in federally funded adoption, including a majority of Republicans and evangelicals.

“I think as soon as the general public realizes what’s going on, we will win,” she said. “Anybody who cares about kids should care about this issue.”

Dana Rudolph is the founder and publisher of Mombian (, a GLAAD Media Award-winning blog and resource directory for LGBTQ parents.