Virginia residents witnessed a significant victory for religious liberty this week. On Wednesday, Virginia’s State Board of Social Services voted 7–2 to reject a controversial policy that could have forced faith-based institutions to abandon their beliefs and cost Virginia many effective adoption agencies. Governor Bob McDonnell (R) is expected to approve the regulations.
The proposed changes to the regulations would have added sexual orientation, family status, age, religion, and other characteristics to the state’s family services nondiscrimination policy, prohibiting any adoption agency in Virginia from considering those attributes in prospective adoptive parents. Refusing to abide by this or any other adoption and foster care regulation would result in an agency losing its state-issued license to place children for adoption in Virginia. A religiously affiliated agency that believes children thrive in married households with both mom and dad would have been forced to either renounce its moral beliefs or shut its doors.
The proposed changes would have threatened the religious liberty of adoption agencies, effectively banning many faith-based family service organizations with tragic consequences for the thousands of Virginia children waiting for adoption. In 2002, the latest year for which data is available, roughly 80 percent of Virginia’s 2,121 adoptions were facilitated by private organizations or through direct placement. Forty-two of the nearly 60 state-approved private adoption agencies have a particular religious affiliation.
A public comment period on the proposed regulations afforded a glimpse into the consequences of alienating faith-based adoption and foster care agencies. As Teresa McDonough, director of Catholic Charities for the Diocese of Arlington, wrote: “We feel this does not allow faith-based agencies to follow their beliefs in regard to sexual orientation, religion and family status when approving families for foster care and adoption, thereby impacting their ability to continue to operate in this state.”
Likewise, Brian Luwis, CEO of America World Adoption, which is headquartered in McLean, Virginia, commented, “As a Christian adoption agency … we fear that this regulation, if implemented in its current form, could put our agency in conflict with licensing standards and endanger our ability to serve children.”
According to the Washington Times review of the 1,000-plus public comments on the proposed regulations, the vast majority of respondents took issue with the addition of “sexual orientation” to the nondiscrimination policy, while just over 30 respondents viewed the change positively.
Similar unintended consequences have resulted from broadly defined nondiscrimination policies in other localities. In the wake of legalizing same-sex marriage in the District of Columbia and Massachusetts, both jurisdictions sacrificed the vast and important work of local Catholic archdioceses in helping place foster children in loving homes. The new same-sex marriage laws and previous sexual orientation policies pitted legal statutes against the organizations’ teaching that marriage is the union of one man and one woman and that children deserve the unique benefits provided by both a mother and a father.
Absent robust religious exemptions, government redefinition of civil institutions like the family often forces religious organizations to choose between providing services or forfeiting their convictions on bedrock moral issues. As Heritage visiting fellow Thomas Messner writes in recent research:
When civil liability or equal access to government benefits depends on private citizens adopting the “official” state position on controversial moral issues, the potential for infringement of religious liberty and rights of conscience is clear.
Differences over moral issues of great weight are not likely to end soon. Whenever government has a regulatory or funding interest in such issues, policymakers should be careful to provide full protection for and encouragement of the religious liberty of organizations whose work advances civil society.