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Lansing — Controversial legislation is advancing this week to permit faith-based foster care and adoption agencies to turn away gay and lesbian couples seeking to adopt a child by invoking their “sincerely held religious beliefs” against homosexuality.

The Republican-controlled House of Representatives gave the package of adoption bills first-round approval Tuesday, with a final vote likely to be taken as early as Wednesday. They revive a proposal that failed to win legislative approval last year.

Democrats contend the bills give religiously affiliated adoption agencies a license to discriminate against lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people who want to adopt and raise children.

“The whole goal of this package is to allow agencies to discriminate against LGBT couples,” said Rep. Jeff Irwin, D-Ann Arbor.

Rep. Andrea LaFontaine, a chief sponsor of the legislative package, said Tuesday the bills would put into law what already is Michigan Department of Human Services policy.

LaFontaine said she’s confident the House will pass the legislation, but prospects for it becoming law are less certain, because Gov. Rick Snyder has expressed reservations about the proposal.

“It will maintain the diversity of agencies that are out there today,” said LaFontaine, R-Columbus Township. “More faith-based agencies could come online.”

The Macomb County legislator said Michigan’s existing practices result in an 80 percent success rate for adoptions. She said Snyder “is entitled to his opinion” and she’s “willing to work with him on any concerns he has.”

Snyder has publicly sidestepped questions about whether he supports the bill.

“The key issue is, when you talk about adoptions, is we want kids to be with great loving people that want to raise them, that they’re going to be successful in,” Snyder said in a March 9 public radio interview.

The next day, Snyder was asked whether “loving people” would include gay parents. “I didn’t make a reference either way,” Snyder told reporters. “I will stick with my original statement: loving family members and loving parents.”

‘Best interest of the children’

Democratic Rep. Marcia Hovey-Wright of Muskegon agreed the legislation codifies existing practices but plans to vote against it. She said it discriminates against gays who are more likely to welcome some of the 3,000 Michigan children who haven’t been placed with parents, many of them because they have special needs.

“Just because it’s policy doesn’t mean it’s right,” Hovey-Wright said. She charged that the bills are a strategy by Republicans to undermine an expected U.S. Supreme Court decision permitting gay marriages in Michigan.

The House rejected an amendment Irwin sponsored Tuesday that would require upfront disclosure by agencies that they do not process adoptions for gay and lesbian couples.

Michigan National Organization for Women Vice President Mary Pollock said the bills also could prevent divorced people and women who use contraception from adopting children from Catholic and other religious agencies that shun such practices.

“Child placement agencies, whether religiously affiliated or not, should have as their main purpose the best interest of the children, not the best interest of their own religion,” Pollock wrote in an open letter sent Tuesday to lawmakers.

Dave Maluchnik, communications director for the Michigan Catholic Conference, said faith-based adoption agencies never screen potential parents based on whether they are divorced or use birth control.

“That’s unfounded,” Maluchnik said. “I don’t think you can find one example of that ever taking place, here in the state or across the country.”

Referral required in bills

Under the legislation, a faith-based adoption or foster care agency would not be required to place children with someone if the organization had a religious reason for not doing so. The legislation requires the faith-based agency to refer the person they refused to another agency.

An agency that refused to place a child with someone for religious reasons would be required to refer the applicant to another child-placing agency that is willing to do so, and/or refer the applicant to the Department of Human Services website listing other licensed child placement agencies.

A third bill would shield the faith-based agency from any “adverse action” by the Department of Human Services for declining service to an individual on religious grounds.

“It would provide them with the legal protections that they currently do not have to operate their agency in a fashion that’s consistent with their religious principles,” Maluchnik said.

Seventeen of Michigan’s 62 adoption placement agencies are faith-based, Maluchnik said.

Catholic adoption agencies in Boston, San Francisco and Washington, D.C., and throughout Illinois have been forced to close because of government regulations that “violate their institutional conscience,” according to the Michigan Catholic Conference.

“We want to ensure it does not happen in Michigan,” Maluchnik said.

clivengood@detroitnews.com

(517) 371-3660

Twitter.com/ChadLivengood

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