Under new Texas law, faith-based adoption agencies win protections
ABILENE, Texas — At age 17, Jennifer Griffith discovered she was pregnant.
The daughter of a pro-life advocate, Griffith knew she couldn’t abort her baby. Instead, the unmarried teen turned to Christian Homes and Family Services for help.
The 55-year-old ministry — based in this West Texas city where the wind blows hot all day and the sunset explodes with colors each evening — worked with her to find a faithful couple to adopt her baby.
“I wanted my child to have two parents who were married and who were going to raise their child in the Christian faith,” said Griffith, who grew up in the West Freeway Church of Christ in Fort Worth.
A new Lone Star State law — set to take effect Sept. 1 — protects the freedom of faith-based organizations such as Christian Homes and Family Services to adhere to their “sincerely held religious beliefs.”
Under House Bill 3859 — passed by the Texas Legislature and signed into law by Gov. Greg Abbott — state-licensed nonprofits can require, for example, that prospective parents be active church members who attend worship services weekly.
Moreover, taxpayer-funded charities can decline to place children with same-sex couples. However, in such cases, the ministries must refer the couples to more suitable providers.
The law also will permit agencies to place children in religious schools, decline to refer teens for abortions and refuse to enter into contracts with organizations that don’t share their beliefs.
“We had to create an environment in which the state’s work can coexist with the work of faith-based organizations, and I thought this bill really succeeded in doing that,” said Sherri Statler, president and CEO of Christian Homes and Family Services, which is associated with Churches of Christ.
But House Bill 3859 drew fierce opposition from gay-rights advocates and progressive religious groups. In response to the law, California banned state-sponsored travel to Texas, accusing it of authorizing discrimination based on sexual orientation.
GLAAD, an LGBTQ rights group, said the law “will soon allow state-funded or private adoption agencies to use religion as a weapon to refuse adoption requests from LGBTQ couples, Jewish people, Muslims, single parents and other marginalized groups.”
Texas Impact, which is affiliated with the Texas Interfaith Center for Public Policy, complained: “While receiving taxpayer money from the state, a Christian provider will be able to refuse to work with Muslim foster parents; a Baptist provider will be able to put a Catholic foster child in a Baptist private school; and a Jewish foster parent will be able to force a Christian child to eat kosher.”
A national concern
Nearly two years have passed since the U.S. Supreme Court’s 5-4 decision legalizing same-sex marriage.
In the wake of that ruling, Christian foster care and adoption agencies nationwide are adjusting their policies to withstand potential legal challenges, said Danny Holmes, executive director of Agape of North Alabama, which is associated with Churches of Christ.
The Huntsville, Ala.-based ministry requires prospective parents to sign a detailed, three-page statement of Christian faith. The document affirms the sacredness of all human life — including unborn babies — and expresses the organization’s stance on marriage, gender and sexuality.
“AGAPE believes that God Himself wonderfully and immutably creates each person as male or female,” the form states. “These two distinct, complementary genders together reflect the image and nature of God. (Gen 1:26-27.) Rejection of one’s biological sex is a rejection of the image of God within that person.
“We believe that the term ‘marriage’ has only one meaning: the uniting of one man and one woman in a single, exclusive union, as defined in Scripture (Gen. 2:18-25).”
Holmes serves as president of Network 1:27, formerly known as the Christian Child and Family Services Association. Nearly 50 ministries associated with Churches of Christ comprise the national group. The “1:27” references Bible verses such as 1 Samuel 1:27 and James 1:27.
Holmes’ advice for Christian child-placing ministries: “No. 1, have your policies in place, and know who you are and what you stand for. No. 2, treat everyone who walks in your door with dignity and respect. If you’re not a good fit for them, then be prepared to work with them to find an agency or a method through which they can adopt that doesn’t hurt your conscience.”
John and Tonda Kuhn, pictured with their family, are longtime ministry partners with Agape of North Alabama, a Christian child-placing organization based in Huntsville. (PHOTO BY JENNA THORNTON)
Here in Texas, Statler testified for the Freedom to Serve Children Act at legislative committee hearings in Austin, joined by representatives of Catholic Charities and Baptist-affiliated Buckner International.
Supporters said the law doesn’t exclude anyone but allows faith-based agencies to keep serving children without violating their consciences.
“For example, we get calls from Jewish couples,” said Statler, herself an adoptive parent of a 16-year-old girl, Caroline. “And when we do, we have to say, ‘We work with Christian couples, but let us refer you to another organization that is equipped and probably better suited to serve you.’”
Besides recruiting couples to serve as foster and adoptive parents, Christian Homes and Family Services offers free maternity care for women with unplanned pregnancies.
State foster care funding covers $324,000 of the nonprofit’s $2.1 million annual budget, but 57 percent of that is passed directly to parents, Statler said. The amount the ministry keeps pays for only one-third of its costs for the foster program, she said.
Before the law’s passage, some agencies — including Catholic Charities — had started dismantling their child-placing programs in Texas.
“If you look at other states — in California, in Massachusetts, in Washington, D.C. — Catholic Charities closed their foster/adoption programs completely because the state required child placements with same-sex couples,” said Jennifer Carr Allmon, executive director of the Texas Catholic Conference of Bishops.
For the 63-year-old Children’s Home of Lubbock — which is associated with Churches of Christ — the law removes the fear of being sued, President Jimmy Moore said.
“It means that we won’t be forced to either sacrifice our closely held beliefs or dismantle services altogether,” Moore said. “We would like to continue doing work here in Lubbock by helping the most vulnerable children find refuge.”
Glenn Newberry, president of Foster’s Home for Children in Stephenville, said: “I believe the legislation will allow faith-based agencies to operate in an environment of safety for their Scriptural convictions.”
‘A beautiful scenario’
Jake, the baby Griffith gave up for adoption, will turn 17 in September.
After her son was born, Griffith played college soccer and earned a counseling degree. Now 34, she is happily married and the mother of four young girls.
And much to her delight — thanks to an open adoption — the Houston resident has a friendly relationship with Jake and the couple who raised him.
“It was a God thing because the family that I chose couldn’t have been a more perfect fit,” she said. “Our faith — my faith and his adoptive parents’ faith — is really the underlying factor to it being such a beautiful scenario.”
That faith, Griffith said, provided the solid foundation that turned a difficult situation into something truly wonderful.
She sees Texas’ new law as a way to help other women and children enjoy similar happy endings.
“They’re doing really great work,” she said of Christian Homes and Family Services, “and I hope they are able to do it for a long time.”