- Associated Press - Wednesday, February 17, 2016

LINCOLN, Neb. (AP) - A bill introduced in the Nebraska Legislature would prevent child placement agencies that refuse to license gay, lesbian, bisexual or transgender foster parents on religious principle from losing state funding.

Lawmakers heard testimony Wednesday from Christian agencies that say they might be forced to choose between their religious beliefs and state funding after a Nebraska judge struck down the state’s ban on same-sex foster parents last year.

The bill’s sponsor, Sen. Mark Kolterman, said agencies in other states such as Massachusetts and Illinois have been forced to close when private providers decided not to license gay foster parents and the states withdrew valuable funding. Kolterman said the bill would ensure Nebraska continues to contract with diverse agencies and provide homes for its more than 3,000 foster children.

But opponents say the sweeping religious exemption would open the system to broad discrimination.

Doug Weinberg, DHHS director of the Division of Children and Family Services, testified in support of the measure, saying the state’s ever-expanding foster care population cannot afford to lose any available services. Weinberg said the department contracts with 36 private agencies to recruit, train and license foster homes. Ten of those homes are faith-based, he said, and serve 17 percent of Nebraska’s foster children.

Christian placement agencies said faith-based support is essential for parents with religious convictions. The groups have criteria for the homes they license, such as personal involvement in an orthodox church or a clergy recommendation. But if applicants don’t meet that criteria, the agency refers them elsewhere, said Bill Williams of child-placing agency Compass. Williams said the measure is about allowing Compass to serve a specific population, rather than excluding potential foster parents.

“If you want to serve kids, great! Our area, our target market, our focus is the faith community. And we just want to engage them and encourage them to partner with us,” he said.

But opponents condemned the bill as a thinly veiled attack on members of the LGBT community.

Nickolas Kramer of Omaha said he and his husband faced countless obstacles to adopt their 4-year-old daughter.

“I through we were past this, now we’re just moving to another excuse to discriminate against my family and my ability to expand my family,” Kramer said.

Sen. Adam Morfeld of Lincoln said the bill’s broad religious exemption could allow for blanket discrimination against any group so long as the individual claimed a deeply held religious belief.

“What we should really be talking about is the best interest of the child, and the children we should be placing in adoption and foster care. And instead I think we’re letting the religious and political interests of adults get in the way,” Morfeld said.

In August, a Nebraska judge struck down the state policy that prevented same-sex couples from serving as foster parents or adopting state wards. The administrative rule was put in place in 1995, but the Nebraska Department of Health and Human Services quietly stopped enforcing it in 2012.

The committee took no action on the bill.

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The bill is LB975.

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