RICHMOND — Faith-based adoption and foster care agencies in Virginia will not be required to provide services to gay individuals, a state panel ruled Wednesday after nearly a year of heated debate that attracted national interest from advocates on both sides of the issue.
The Virginia State Board of Social Services gave final approval to revised recommendations made in April that removed proposed regulatory language banning adoption agencies in the state from discrimination based on sexual orientation, age, gender, political beliefs, disability, family status or religion.
The board instead voted 5-1 to approve language barring discrimination based solely on prospective parents’ race, color or national origin.
State law allows gay individuals to adopt or become foster parents, but adoption agencies also are allowed to reject their applications based on individuals’ sexual orientation.
The proposed language, introduced in 2009 during the administration of Gov. Tim Kaine, a Democrat, prompted an outcry and a subsequent lobbying effort from faith-based groups. The groups argued that such a regulation would make them quit providing services rather than infringe on their religious beliefs.
“Forcing them to close because of some desires of adults does not serve the best interests of the children,” Victoria Cobb, president of the conservative Family Foundation, told the board.
Rita Dunaway, staff attorney for the Rutherford Institute, a nonprofit defender of civil and religious liberties, called the proposed regulations “nothing less than religious oppression disguised as equality.”
Gov. Bob McDonnell and Attorney General Kenneth T. Cuccinelli II, both Republicans, urged the board to reject the changes, as did Social Services Commissioner Martin D. Brown.
Mr. Cuccinelli issued a memo in April saying the addition of sexual orientation and the other protected statuses contradicts state law.
“This proposed language does not comport with applicable state law and public policy,” Mr. Cuccinelli wrote. “Therefore the state board lacks the authority to adopt this proposed language.”
Despite some confusion, the proposed changes would not have allowed gay couples to adopt. State law prohibits unmarried couples, both heterosexual and homosexual, from adopting.
While 10 states and the District of Columbia allow gay couples to foster or adopt, many are silent on the issue or, like Virginia, disallow it.
More than 30 states, including Virginia, allow only individuals and married couples to adopt. Virginia voters in 2006 approved a constitutional amendment that defines marriage as between a man and a woman. Virginia also does not recognize gay marriages performed in other states.
All states allow single individuals, including gay individuals, to foster or adopt. Florida had been the exception, but a court ruled last year that the state’s policy was unconstitutional.
Proponents of the proposed anti-discriminatory rules argued that they simply provided equal protection for all people, and that a person’s sexual orientation makes no difference in deciding whether they would make a good adoptive or foster parent. Nearly 2,500 children were adopted in the state last year, according to the Department of Social Services.
“It’s not a religious freedom issue,” said Claire Guthrie Gastanaga, counsel for the group Equality Virginia and a former chief deputy attorney general in the state. “You can’t adopt in this state without a judge saying it’s OK. The question should be, ‘Do they as a person have the capacity to provide a loving home to a child in need?’”
The debate turned contentious, with each side accusing the other of distorting the effects of the regulations. In August, the board suspended the process to provide a 30-day public comment period on the matter. The public comment period ended Oct. 11.
The board members — five of whom were appointed by Mr. Kaine — set May 1 as the effective date for the regulation. Board Chairman Aradhana “Bela” Sood voted against it, and two members were not present. More than 2,800 comments were received on the matter.
In March, the issue prompted a flurry of comments on Virginia Regulatory Town Hall, a state-run website on which the public can comment on regulatory changes. More than 1,000 people posted comments in a two-day period.