OKLAHOMA CITY — Legislators plan to push forward with a new law that critics say amounts to outright discrimination against would-be parents seeking to shelter or adopt foster children.

Under the proposed law, the Department of Human Services would have to contract with private child-placing agencies even if they refuse to proceed with adoptions or foster care placements based on religious or moral grounds, said Troy Stevenson, executive director of Freedom Oklahoma. The organization advocates for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender rights.

The law would make it legal to discriminate against same-sex, interfaith or interracial couples, as well as single or divorced Oklahomans who hope to adopt or take in a youth from the state’s child welfare system, he said.

Stevenson said nearly 9,000 children in the foster care system are currently looking for loving homes, and to allow state-funded agencies to promote discrimination is unacceptable.

“We believe this is completely unconstitutional while we believe this puts youth in jeopardy,” Stevenson said.

But as Oklahoma has struggled with foster care recruitment, retention and training, state officials have contracted with private, faith-based partners to increase the pool of people involved with placements and adoptions, said state Sen. Greg Treat, R-Oklahoma City, the measure’s sponsor.

“All this does is say if you’re a church or a nonprofit that has a mission statement that’s based on faith that the state cannot discriminate against you in giving out contracts,” he said.

Proponents of the measure note that similar laws have already passed in at least seven other states, and similar legislation has been proposed at the federal level.

While there hasn’t been litigation in Oklahoma, at least two lawsuits have been filed nationwide, challenging similar laws and the legality of states’ relationships with faith-based entities, Treat said. He said Oklahoma’s measure is a proactive step in response to the out-of-state suits.

Passing the law would allow faith-based agencies to continue operating, said Brett Farley, executive director of the Catholic Conference of Oklahoma, the public policy arm for Oklahoma’s Catholic Church. His organization supports the proposed law.

“This is already current practice, so the real objection is to current practice,” he said. “So if there’s an objection to current practice, why are we just now hearing the objection?”

He said groups that run adoption agencies, like Catholic Charities, already operate according to their principles and criteria.

While polices vary, generally speaking, most religious adoption providers look for heterosexual, married, Christian families, he said.

“That criteria may also unselect the pope himself,” Farley said. “Catholic Charities, for instance, will not adopt a child to the pope because he doesn’t meet the specific criteria set forth by those religious principles.”

In addition, a lot of prospective businesses want to come into the state, he said. Without protections in place, they’re not going to risk potential — and often expensive — litigation, he said.

“That means there are kids in the process that are not getting adopted because the service is not there,” Farley said.

Kris Williams, a lesbian who lives in Bethany, said she adopted her now 11-year-old son from the foster care system.

Children raised in the foster care system have higher rates of homelessness, early pregnancy, substance abuse, medical and mental health issues, incarceration and early death, she said.

A social service provider, Williams said she was knowledgeable enough about the foster care system to be able to adopt directly through the Department of Human Services.

But many people must turn to private agencies to navigate the complexities of adoption, officials said.

“Senate Bill 1140 insults my family, but worse, it will affect our children of Oklahoma, their chance for success, for family and for happiness,” she said. “I’m heartbroken both as a mother and as a professional that any adult would withhold family from Oklahoma children.”

Janelle Stecklein covers the Oklahoma Statehouse for CNHI's newspapers and websites. Reach her at jstecklein@cnhi.com.

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