Tennessee Senate approves controversial adoption bill allowing faith-based agencies to reject LGBT couples

NASHVILLE — In their first official act of 2020, Tennessee senators on Tuesday approved a controversial bill Tuesday that allows faith-based adoption agencies to reject placing children with same-sex couples.

The measure, which cleared the Republican House last year , was approved by the GOP-controlled Senate on a 20-6 vote, sending it on to Gov. Bill Lee for his consideration.

As approved, it says "to the extent allowed by federal law, no private licensed child-placing agency shall be required to perform, assist, counsel, recommend, consent to, refer, or participate in any placement of a child for foster care or adoption when the proposed placement would violate the agency’s written religious or moral convictions or policies."

Bill sponsor Sen. Paul Rose, R-Covington, said some states such as California have enacted policies that prohibit adoption agencies from such refusals.

"Currently there have been states with agencies that have been forced to shut down," Rose said, later adding, "this bill does not restrict any rights to place a child with a family, what I would consider a traditional family, mother and father."

Sen. Jeff Yarbro, D-Nashville, who unsuccessfully sought to amend the bill, argued there is a "lot of talk about protecting private religious liberty of individuals and organizations."

But Yarbro said "when those organizations are contracting with the state of Tennessee, when they are receiving dollars from public funds, they are no longer acting as private actors. They’re acting as public actors."

Lt. Gov. Randy McNally, the Senate Republican speaker, left the chamber podium to make a rare venture into the debate, saying the bill was unnecessary and could actually pose future problems for religious and socially conservative groups.

President Trump "has stated he would not enforce President Obama’s mandate regarding religious organizations not being able to choose who they give children to and other things," McNally said. "Then we already had on the books [state] legislation sponsored that passed overwhelmingly which is the Freedom of Religion Act."

"I would argue that it’s best to leave alone what we have, because the protections already exist," said McNally who was one of five senators, including Republican Todd Gardenhire of Chattanooga, who simply voted present on passage.

He said he was concerned what future legal snarls might be caused to other provisions of the state’s Freedom of Religion Act with one section pulled out into a special law for enhancement.

Sens. Bo Watson, R-Hixson, and Mike Bell, R-Riceville, voted for the measure.

Bell noted during debate that there is "nothing in the bill to force parents to go to a faith based agency."

Sens. Yarbro and Steve Dickerson, R-Nashville, repeatedly raised concerns about the legislation.

Yarbro warned that a placement agency which doesn’t wish to allow LGBT couples to adopt "could just choose to let that child remain in child care until the child is 18, even if they could find a couple who are a LGBT couple."

Dickerson raise the spectre of national groups, even professional sports leagues, deciding to boycott Tennessee over the issue.

Gov. Lee told reporters earlier Tuesday he wasn’t commenting about the bill when asked about it by reporters.

The bill was supported by the Southern Baptist Convention’s Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission.

Contact Andy Sher at asher@timesfreepress.com or 615-255-0550. Follow on Twitter @AndySher1.