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The State House voted Wednesday to allow 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 three-bill package was adopted by votes of 65-44 in the Republican-controlled House, but they were preceded by extensive floor debate as Democrats tried to detail the legislation by arguing it would give faith-based adoption agencies a license to discriminate against lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people who want to adopt and raise children as well as people of differing faiths.

But one of the bill sponsors — Rep. Andrea LaFontaine, R-Columbus Township — argued that private agencies would remain subject to all applicable federal and state laws, and that the proposals did not apply exclusively to Christian agencies.

The legislation is intended to protect Michigan's successful 80 percent rate of placing children with adoptive families, LaFontaine said.

"It's about providing the most options for children," she said.

Rep. Eric Leutheuser, R-Hillsdale, agreed and contended the package prevents "conflicts of interest" and promotes "mutual respect."

But seven Democrats took to the floor to insist the legislation would discriminate on sexual orientation and religion.

"This law is a license to discriminate. ... This is state-funded discrimination," said Rep. Jeff Irwin, D-Ann Arbor, who later added about his GOP colleagues, "You are blinded by your own faith."

Opponents referred to research showing that gay couples are four times more likely to adopt than heterosexual couples and are more likely to adopt special needs children.

Rep. Robert Wittenberg, D-Oak Park, said the proposals would it make it more difficult to adopt the 3,000 children who are still awaiting adoption in Michigan. The Jewish lawmaker also contended it "could prevent me from adopting because of my religious beliefs," adding it would codify "into law a class of second-class citizens."

Rep. Marcia Hovey Wright, D-Muskegon, was more blunt in saying lawmakers were being coerced into approving the legislation because faith-based adoption agencies threaten to get out of the business if they can't refer couples elsewhere for religious reasons.

"Is it OK to reward this defiant behavior?" Wright asked.

Seventeen of Michigan's 62 adoption placement agencies are faith-based, according to the Michigan Catholic Conference, the public policy arm of the Catholic Church. 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 conference.

In fiscal year 2014, Michigan contracted with private agencies for adoption services to the tune of $19.9 million, according to the Michigan Department of Human Services. It accounted for about 85 percent of the $23.2 million the state spent that year on adoption support services.

Rep. Laura Cox, R-Livonia, said the three bills would preserve successful practices in today's adoption and foster care system.

"The Department of Human Services has been clear that faith-based agencies are critical to ensuring that all children are adopted into loving homes," Cox said.

The Associated Press tweeted during the House floor debate that "DHS hasn't confirmed its practice/policy on adoptions/religious-based agency."

Rep. Jon Hoadley, D-Kalamazoo, tried to persuade Republican lawmakers against adopting the bills by arguing they don't allow for more transparency and accountability with agencies entrusted with providing public services.

"These bills allow for agencies to pick and choose which children they service," Hoadley said. "We are creating a special exemption" for agencies that fail to disclose their faith policies.

"Where's the line that says all people must follow the rules in this state?"

But the Michigan Catholic Conference welcomed the House's approval.

"Securing diversity in child placement and protecting religious liberty rights for faith-based agencies will move children out of the foster care system," said Tom Hickson, the conference's president for public policy and advocacy. "Without this legislation, there will likely be fewer providers, which means fewer opportunities to find homes for kids that need them."

The legislation now goes to the GOP-controlled Senate, where Majority Leader Arlan Meekhof has not shown any interest in it.

Snyder has sidestepped questions about whether he supports the legislation. .

"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.

kbouffard@detroitnews.com

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