RICHMOND — The Virginia House of Delegates on Thursday gave preliminary approval to a bill that would protect state-licensed private adoption agencies from placing children with families if the placement conflicts with the agency's religious beliefs.
The so-called "conscience clause" measure would allow agencies to deny placements based on sexual orientation, but not to discriminate based on other qualifications, such as race, color or national origin, which are protected under federal law.
"All it intends to do is codify and clarify the existing status quo," said Delegate C. Todd Gilbert, Shenandoah Republican, and "does not in any way affect who can adopt children in Virginia."
The state Board of Social Services last year approved regulations that would prohibit prospective adoptive or foster parents from discrimination based on race, color or national origin, but stripped out earlier proposed protections on factors such as family status and sexual orientation.
Delegate David L. Englin, Alexandria Democrat, proposed a series of floor amendments to soften the bill, all of which were rejected summarily by the Republican-controlled House.
He drew the ire of Delegate Benjamin L. Cline, Rockbridge Republican, when he proposed an amendment that would eliminate state funding for agencies that want to make placements when it is not in the best interests of the child.
Mr. Cline said he looked forward to Mr. Englin's vote on a budget amendment to cut funding for Planned Parenthood. Mr. Englin responded that he looked forward to that debate.
House Minority Leader David J. Toscano, Charlottesville Democrat, argued that under the bill, in theory, the Department of Social Services would not be able to prevent foster parents from practicing corporal punishment against their children.
"Is that what you really want?" he asked.
Mr. Englin was more blunt.
"Let's just speak the truth, and tell it like it is," he finally said. "This legislation is about ensuring that foster-placement agencies that do not want to place children - whether for adoption or for foster care - with same-sex couples are able to do that."
"When they're acting as an agent of the state," he said, "we have an obligation to respect all of our citizens."
As is often the case, Delegate Robert G. Marshall, Prince William Republican, got the final say on the matter. He said the regulations, proposed toward the end of the term of Gov. Tim Kaine, a Democrat, were brought to his attention by the head of Catholic Charities of Northern Virginia, from which he and his wife adopted three children. He argued that absent the rules, Catholic Charities would effectively have been shut down.
"I urge adoption, appropriately, of this bill," he said.
The House gave its initial approval by voice vote, and it could face a final vote as early as Friday. The Senate is considering a "conscience clause" bill introduced by Sen. Jeffrey L. McWaters, Virginia Beach Republican.
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David Sherfinski covers politics for The Washington Times. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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