TALLAHASSEE (Christian Examiner) – Tens of thousands of children in Florida's child welfare system could be in danger of losing their homes if faith-based foster-care and adoption providers in Florida are not granted "conscience protection" by the legislators meeting in Florida's state capitol this month.
Meanwhile, with the clock winding down for children in Florida, politicians and activists focused on Indiana's raging controversy over religious freedom, using that situation to jab at conscience protections for those serving the state's most vulnerable.
Private and faith-based foster-care and adoption agencies – those which by some estimates provide care for more than half the children in Florida's foster care system – are facing mounting anti-Christian discrimination, according to Bill Bunkley, head of Florida's Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission.
"The real fear here is that the number of children who are currently being taken care of by the faith-based community could find themselves without the homes they are living in if this anti-Christian discrimination were to prevail in our foster care adoption system," Bunkley told Christian Examiner.
Bunkley testified April 2 in support of House Bill 7111, legislation designed to protect child placement agencies from being required to violate their "religious or moral convictions."
Responding to a backlash of criticism labeling the care agencies as "anti-gay" and worse, Bunkley said to the contrary, "We have shown tolerance for what we may not think that is appropriate based on our world view, but now we see a rise of intolerance and anti-Christian discrimination."
The bill (originally HHSC 15-03) was pushed through the House Health and Human Services Committee on its first reading March 19, and was debated and passed in the House Judiciary Committee April 2 on party lines after lengthy debate.
The debate focused on "discrimination" towards homosexuals – but is unfounded, Bunkley said. A "track record" shows Florida Baptist Children's Home, for instance, assists those who are not eligible to adopt or shelter children in its care, Bunkley said, and those adults are routinely accommodated through state organizations which do not have the same "conscience" and convictional requirements.
Rep. Jason Brodeur, a Republican legislator who proposed the bill shortly after the House passed a bill which would remove the language from state law language banning same-sex couple from adopting – a practice that was ruled unconstitutional by an appeals court judge five years ago – has said the majority of 82 private adoption agencies allow placement with same-sex couples.
Catholic Charities of Boston and San Francisco, however, stopped providing adoption services in 2006 after those states enacted anti-discrimination laws that did not offer conscience protections.
The same could happen in Florida, Bunkley said, where the cost to children's lives would be disastrous.
"There is nothing in the 4-5 year track record that shows they have tried to block or deceive anyone," Bunkley said of private and faith-based organizations in Florida. "If there has been a longstanding tradition of doing this inappropriately, there would be people waiting to testify ... and these things would be percolating up."
John Stemberger, general counsel for the Florida Family Policy Council, also provided testimony before a House committee April 2. He told Christian Examiner HB 7111 is a "positive step in the right direction," but the bill needs stronger protections against local non-discrimination ordinances.
Stemberger said because of the way Florida law is written, "express and clear preemption language" needs to be added to the bill to protect faith-based adoption agencies "from being attacked" by those who have created new protected classes for sexual orientation, gender identity and gender expression.
Jerry Haag, president of Florida Baptist Children's Homes, told Christian Examiner FBCH impacted 106,000 children and families in need through Christ centered services last year alone.
"The conscience protection bill is a fantastic solution to making sure faith-based organizations can continue dire care for children throughout the state of Florida," Haag said. "For us, it means assurance we can help 106,000 more children this year and after as we remain committed to our founding beliefs."
Bunkley said, now more than ever people need to unite for the sake of the children.
"There is a need for all hands to be on deck," Bunkley said. "It would be a shame if the last 10 years or so of working to get our church and their congregations to help make a difference with a portion of our kids in the most severe need -- would come to an end."
Lawmakers meet again after taking a break for Easter Monday, April 6. The bill (HB 7111) is not yet on the schedule for debate in the House and the Senate does not have a similiar bill.