'Conscience Protection' for adoption agencies passes Florida House committee

by Joni B. Hannigan , Editorial Staff |

(Christian Examiner/SCREENSHOT)Bill Bunkley, president of Florida Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission, speaks in support of HHSC 15-03 March 19 during a Health and Human Services Committee meeting of the Florida House of Representatives. The bill passed out of committee by a 12-6 vote.

TALLAHASSEE, Fla. (Christian Examiner) -- A "Conscience Protection" clause for Florida faith-based adoption and foster care agencies would allow them to carry on as usual and shield an estimated 50-58 percent of the states' children in desperate need from becoming held hostage by politics -- according to conservatives who helped push a bill through the Florida House of Representatives on its first reading yesterday.

Bill Bunkley, head of Florida Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission; Michael B. Sheedy, associate director for health for the Florida Catholic Conference; and, Randy Osborne of the Florida Eagle Forum were among those who spoke in support of HHSC 15-03

The bill, which came out of the Health and Human Services Committee with a vote of 12-6, is designed to protect child-placement agencies from being required to violate their "religious or moral convictions."

TWO SEPARATE ISSUES

It follows last week's Senate vote to remove language banning gay adoption in Florida, a practice some have said has been in effect for five years through public agencies since one lone judge challenged the constitutionality of banning homosexual adoption -- a law that has been written in state statues -- and something the Florida Supreme Court has never addressed.

"It is two separate issues and victory in one doesn't mitigate the other issue either way," Bunkley told Christian Examiner.

FLORIDA BAPTISTS

In the hearing on the conscience bill, Bunkley told lawmakers the measure would just be "codifying what already is and has been the case for faith-based entities working with DCF (Department of Children and Families)."

Bunkley reminded lawmakers the privatization of much of Florida's foster care and adoption services "goes back to the governorship of Jeb Bush," and came from an era of "looking to shore up DCF."

Noting his relationship as a legislative consultant for the Florida Baptist Convention, which represents over one million Florida Southern Baptists, and speaking of Florida Baptist Children's Homes, Bunkley said he is strongly supportive of the bill.

"Faith-based organizations are critical to thousands of children," Bunkley said. "This proposed bill will continue that pivotal care for children while protecting the moral beliefs of our faith organizations."

The bill will provide "community-based care organizations and partners throughout the state" to continue to engage in work on "behalf of children who have been abandoned, neglected and abused," he said.

Noting he and his wife adopted a Florida child from the foster care system, Bunkley shared on a personal level about why this bill is important.

"We get involved with numbers [but] each child is precious," Bunkley said. "And though we have a lot of different interests in the state, this bill is not giving exclusivity to faith-based organizations. There is a wide array of organizations and everybody can be accommodated."

Bunkley pleaded with lawmakers to put aside their political persuasions to vote for the bill for the sake of the children.

"But if you just realize the impact of faith-based organizations with each and every one of these little previous souls – if that were to stop on a dime today -- ladies and gentlemen, you would have a crisis," Bunkley said.

FLORIDA BAPTIST CHILDREN'S HOMES

In 2014, Florida Baptist Children's Homes (FBCH), an agency supported in part by the Florida Baptist State Convention, directly interacted with more than 106,000 children and families through adoption, foster care, emergency shelter care, and a "safe home" for child victims of sex trafficking.

FBCH president Jerry Haag told Christian Examiner its 20 program sites in Florida cared for 70,000 children and families last year—and doubled its adoption staff to place 704 children in "loving foster homes" through its "Foster Family Homes" model.

"We have been able to keep more brothers and sisters together—giving the children normalcy despite the abnormal situations from which they were removed," Haag said.

The work of faith-based organizations is "critical" to the thousands of children in the care of Florida's DCF, Haag said, and the bill recognizes every faith-based organization's right to continue to serve "precious children" while allowing churches, synagogues, dioceses and mosques to host courses to equip parents to care for children with needs.

FLORIDA CATHOLIC CONFERENCE

Catholic Charities places 30-40 children for adoption annually in Florida, according to a rationale in the draft of the bill it submitted to legislators last week.

Diuring the hearing, Sheedy said the bill is a "proactive effort to cut off and avoid other laws that relate to non-discrimination" and an attempt to "preserve the status quo."

With over 2 million Catholics in Florida, the faith-based organization services 10,601 overall in its "housing services."

Referencing other protections in place for individuals and hospitals, Sheedy said the conscience bill simply allows for individuals to not "violate their own beliefs," while those who wish to participate are "free to obtain those services in other places."

"There has been a lot of effort over time to regulate the freedom of religious institutions to serve in our pluralistic society," Sheedy said. "We simply wish to continue that good partnership with the state today."

Representatives from the National Organization for Women and Equality Florida, among others, spoke in opposition to the bill and claimed it is discriminatory and will prevent children from having "loving homes."

Eagle Forum's Osborne said between 50-58 percent of the adoptions in the state are handled through private and faith-based agencies.

"If we really are concerned about children, and if this is an important issue ... we have to consider them," Osborne said, noting similar organizations in Massachusetts, Illinois and California have closed because legislation in those states did not provide a conscience clause.

"This good bill is probably one of the most critically important to the least among us," he said. "Faith-based adoption agencies and private agencies across our state, if we don't enact this bill, will shut ... down."

RELIGIOUS FREEDOM AT STAKE

Bunkley said the bottom line is religious freedom.

"There is no more dancing around the issue," Bunkley said. "We are not proposing to do something new. We have a lot of faith-based institutions already in the procces as long as they have the freedom to be who they are. If they are asked to compromise their faith, this could put DCF in crisis. If discrimination is claimed -- a lot of kids are not going to get serviced. 

"This is all about the kids. ... there are plenty of other non-faith based entities that can service others," Bunkley added. "This is the official beginning of the battle for religious liberty and religious freedom in the state of Florida as we have seen throughout the country."