- Associated Press - Friday, March 18, 2016

LINCOLN, Neb. (AP) - Two Nebraska lawmakers stormed out of a committee voting session and another promised a filibuster Friday after the panel advanced a bill that would protect state funding for faith-based child placement groups that refuse to work with gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender foster parents.

The Judiciary Committee voted 5-3 to send the measure to the full Legislature, where it faces three rounds of votes. Gov. Pete Ricketts hasn’t said whether he’ll sign it, but his administration has supported the effort, saying the state’s expanding foster case population can’t afford to lose any foster-care services.

Faith-based organizations serve about 17 percent of Nebraska’s foster children.

But opponents say the sweeping religious exemption would allow discrimination in Nebraska’s foster care system and could prompt costly lawsuits and threaten federal funding. Sen. Patty Pansing Brooks of Lincoln said the policy’s backers want to deny foster parenting opportunities to people like her son, who is gay.

“They do not care about whether I get to be a grandmother,” Pansing Brooks said after the vote. “This kind of policy continues to encourage bright, fabulous people to just move away from Nebraska.”

She and fellow Lincoln Sen. Adam Morfeld abruptly left the committee room after the vote. Another opponent, Sen. Ernie Chambers of Omaha, told fellow committee members he would try to derail the proposal in the full Legislature.

Sen. Mark Kolterman of Seward has said he introduced the bill to ensure Nebraska keeps a strong network of child placement agencies, some of which are religious and oppose same-sex marriage. The legislation also would prevent the state from taking “adverse action” against a group because of sincerely held religious beliefs.

Kolterman said he was disappointed by the criticism of the bill, arguing that it doesn’t deny anyone the opportunity to serve as a foster or adoptive parent because the state also offers secular child placement services.

“If there is anything remotely positive about these attacks, it is only that they illustrate and highlight the critical need” for the blll, he said.

Some Christian agencies testified in February that 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.

Others say they want to limit their focus to specific religious groups. Bill Williams, who leads the child placement agency Compass, said Friday that his Kearney-based organization concentrates on people with an Orthodox Christian faith. Compass trains new foster parents and helps them meet the state’s qualifications to serve.

Williams noted that the process of becoming a foster parent is intensely personal and intrusive. Parents undergo a battery of tests and must open their homes to case workers, attorneys and child advocates while working with the state.

“I’ve had families come to me and say they wouldn’t become foster parents if we weren’t a faith-based agency,” Williams said. “We can relate to them at their deepest level of faith.”

The Department of Health and Human Services, which is part of Ricketts’ administration, has spoken in support of the bill. The department contracts with 36 private agencies to recruit, train and license foster homes. Ten of those are faith-based groups.

The American Civil Liberties Union of Nebraska warned on Friday that the bill could not only expose the state to civil rights lawsuit, but also jeopardize as much as $30 million in federal funding.

The bill “does nothing to address the needs of Nebraska’s vulnerable children languishing in the child welfare system,” said Danielle Conrad, the group’s executive director. “It is simply a license to discriminate for government contractors who want their religious beliefs to come ahead of the best interests of our children.”

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The bill is LB975

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