NASHVILLE, Tenn. (AP) — Tennessee lawmakers kicked off the first day of the 2020 legislative session Tuesday by approving a proposal that would assure continued taxpayer funding of faith-based foster care and adoption agencies even if they exclude LGBT families and others based on religious beliefs.
The GOP-controlled Senate passed the measure, which was approved by the House last April, amid warnings by critics of the bill’s possible negative consequences on Tennessee’s reputation. It now goes to the governor.
“We are off to a fine start this session,” state Sen. Steve Dickerson joked while debating against the bill as the lone Republican opposed.
Seven states to date have enacted similar legislation: Kansas, Oklahoma, Texas, Alabama, South Dakota, Virginia and Michigan. One of those states, Michigan, agreed in settling a lawsuit to no longer turn away LGBT couples or individuals because of religious objections.
Nationally, supporters argue that such measures are needed to protect against potential lawsuits hostile to the group’s religious beliefs. However, critics counter that the proposals attack LGBT rights and limit the number of qualified families seeking t o adopt or foster needy children.
“This bill is solely about freedom,” said Sen. Paul Rose, the Republican sponsor of the bill.
Rose conceded he thought the bill wasn’t necessary, pointing out that President Donald Trump’s administration is currently proposing a rule that would impose the same protections. Yet he said he was advancing the bill this year because there was no guarantee Trump would be reelected later this year.
Trump’s proposal would rescind an Obama-era rule that prevented foster care agencies from receiving federal funds if they discriminated against families based on sexual orientation and gender identity.
Ultimately, 20 Republicans approved the bill while five other Republican members simply voted “present” even after some questioned the bill’s benefits.
Dickerson was the only Republican to join the Senate’s five Democrats in opposition. The proposal now goes to Republican first-term Gov. Bill Lee for his consideration, though he declined to say Tuesday whether he would sign it.
Dickerson said the bill would allow certain groups to limit the families where children could be sent, adding “I expect that waiting list to increase somewhat,” he said.
He added, “This will have a direct fiscal impact on the state, not to mention the humanitarian impact and emotional impact on those children who … will now be in a foster setting for a longer time.”
In 2011, Illinois declined to renew its state contract with Catholic Charities adoption services due to its policy of refusing child placement to same-sex couples. Catholic Charities has also stopped handling adoptions in Washington D.C., Massachusetts and San Francisco over concerns they would be required to act against their religious beliefs.
If the proposal becomes law, current adoption practices in Tennessee aren’t expected to change. Some faith-based agencies already do not allow gay couples to adopt. But this measure would provide legal protections to agencies that do.
For example, denied applicants couldn’t sue an agency for damages if the religious belief or moral conviction was cited as a reason.
Over in the House, lawmakers had less on tap on opening day, but some political action did unfold.
GOP Rep. David Byrd confirmed to reporters that he doesn’t plan to seek reelection this year. Byrd is accused of sexual misconduct by three women when he was their high school basketball coach and a teacher decades ago, before he was elected. He was reelected in 2018 despite the accusations.
Byrd said he told GOP colleagues in an August closed door gathering that he wouldn’t run again, as The Tennessean has reported. He went until Monday without confirming it publicly.
“I told my caucus I wouldn’t go run, and I hate to go back on my word, even though I’m getting a lot of pressure put on me in my district to run,” Byrd told The Associated Press.
Byrd had apologized to one of the women in a phone call she recorded in early 2018, but he didn’t detail his action and denied anything happened with other students.
He said he might change his mind and run for reelection if protests continue over the allegations. Another Republican has filed for his seat.