RICHMOND — The Virginia Senate on Thursday passed a bill that would protect child-placement agencies in the state from being forced to place adoption or foster children if the placement violates their religious beliefs.
The so-called "conscience clause" measure would allow agencies to deny placements based on sexual orientation and other factors but not to discriminate based on other characteristics, such as race, color or national origin, which are protected under federal law.
Approval in the Senate comes after the House signed off on its own version of the bill. Gov. Bob McDonnell, a Republican, is expected to sign the measure into law.
"It's an affirmation of religious freedom," said Jeff Caruso with the Virginia Catholic Conference, noting that the bill does not change who can adopt or receive foster care placement but simply codifies regulations passed last year by the state Board of Social Services.
"Rather than waiting for another conflict to arise, we thought it important to codify conscience protections into Virginia law," he said.
Sen. Adam P. Ebbin called the bill "morally wrong." About 4,400 Virginia children are in foster care, and about 1,300 of them are seeking to be adopted.
"I wonder why anyone would seek to limit opportunities for the 1,300 children in our system who are searching for loving homes," said Mr. Ebbin, Alexandria Democrat.
The vote comes amidst intense furor over a decision from the Obama administration's Health and Human Services Department to require all employers — even religious institutions — to cover birth control in their health insurance plans, even if it may counter their religious beliefs.
"I do think the two issues have a lot in common," Mr. Caruso said. "I think the unprecedented HHS move shows why there is a need for strong conscience rights protections. Anyone with strong religious beliefs should be able to practice what they profess."
But Mr. Ebbin, who is gay, said he thinks that either next year or soon after the state legislature could be considering a bill seeking to ban the entire gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender community from becoming adoptive or foster parents.
Only married couples and single people, gay or straight, are allowed to adopt in Virginia.
A memo released this week from Gary J. Gates of the UCLA School of Law's Williams Institute suggests that, should the measure the Senate passed Thursday become law, it could have a significant fiscal impact on the state. He estimated that 1,700 adopted children and 300 foster children are being raised by single lesbians and gay men in the state.
If appropriate foster and adoptive homes can't be found, foster children and those awaiting adoption may be turned over to the state, increasing the annual cost to Virginia by about $2,000 per child.
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