'Religious Conscience' Riles Senate

Apr 20, 2015

A highly controversial bill pitting civil right against civil right is on final approach to Governor Rick Scott’s desk. While adoption is one of the most private decisions a family can make, a so-called “religious conscience” bill is stirring a very public debate.

Sen. Jack Latvala, R-Palm Harbor, wanted evidence of a legal threat to private adoption agencies if the state doesn't pass a "religious conscience" bill.
Credit Florida Senate

Under any other circumstance, Amanda Williams would be standing in the Senate gallery, taking a bow for extraordinary public service. A social worker, she’s been foster parent to more than 20 children in four years. She made it permanent with two of them.

“So both of our kids were actually 17 when we adopted them. They were actually very hard to place. They were very rare, unlikely adoptions.”

Instead, Williams was in the Capitol defending her right to serve society. A lesbian, she opposes a measure that would allow private agencies to deny her a child based on their religious rights.

It’s a shame, Williams said, because she thinks lesbians like her can be good parents.

“I think we are more mindful parents, much more aware of exposing our kids to lots of things. We attend lots of churches, attend lots of activities so they can have that exposure.”

So do the courts. The Third District Court of Appeal struck down a 1977 law that made Florida the last state to ban gay adoptions. That left essentially meaningless words in the statute books that couldn’t be enforced.

On April 9, religious conservatives in the House took a symbolic vote to finally erase the ban. Republican Representative Dennis Baxley, a former director of the Christian Coalition of Florida, angered their constituents when they debated for the measure.

I’ll tell you right now, as the adoptive father of two of my five children, I believe in the urgency of giving a child a home.”

Baxley reversed his vote, after what he said was a few days of prayer and thought.

But the vote sent the political pendulum swing in the opposite direction. On Monday, a Senate panel debated a similar version. Republican leaders assigned it a single committee hearing.

Palm Olsen, legislative director of Governor Rick Scott’s Faith-Based and Community-Based Advisory Council, said her group considers the bill urgent. Lawsuits could drive private agencies into extinction, she said.

“The climate in America has changed. We’re at a time and season when religious liberties are under attack.”

But Republican Senator Jack Latvala of Palm Harbor was doubtful. He noted that gay adoption has been legal in Florida for five years.

“Is there a problem? Has anyone lost their license because they weren’t following the law?”

Supporters cited a quote “climate of litigation,” but did not give examples of legal challenges.

Catholics and other religious groups are insisting on the law. Katy Martin, vice president of communications for the Florida Baptist Children’s Homes, says her organization doesn’t turn away gay parents, but also doesn’t match them with children.

“If they don’t follow our criteria as far as what we’re founded on and that’s the Baptist faith, then we would encourage them to adopt. We have referral services which can help them find the right organizations.”

Voting for lifting the gay adoption ban gave conservative Republicans political cover to deny prejudice. Republican Representative Julio Gonzalez of Naples:

“I fully respect their right to lead their lifestyle in a manner that is consistent with their belief.”

But when it comes down to one civil right versus another, Gonzalez says he’ll vote for religion every time.

“In this specific regard, I think the religious freedoms of those who are running adoption agencies has a bigger weight.”

The bill is being compared to a recent Indiana law that prohibited local governments from infringing on religious rights. Business and organizations across the country threatened to boycott.