TOPEKA — Republican leadership in the House and Senate moved Thursday to force votes on legislation granting immunity to Kansas faith-based adoption and foster care agencies that might be sued for alleged discrimination against gays and others resulting from decisions about placement of children.
In a gambit to send the bill to Gov. Jeff Colyer before close of the annual legislative session Friday, four GOP members of a House-Senate conference committee sidestepped assertions of state-sanctioned discrimination from the two Democratic negotiators and advanced a plan to put Senate Bill 284 into play.
The bill would insert into state law a provision attempting to shield organizations that perform, assist, counsel or recommend placement of children in foster or adoptive homes from litigation inspired by refusal by those organizations to serve certain individuals based on religious values.
The exception that would be added to state law would apply to entities working with the Kansas Department for Children and Families, a state agency under Colyer's jurisdiction. The governor has avoided comment on the policy but said repeatedly he opposed discrimination.
Wichita Rep. Susan Humphries, one of two House Republican negotiators on the bill, said the religious freedom language was intended to protect adoption and foster care organizations from threat of closure related to lawsuits or administrative actions inspired by individuals who claimed discrimination.
"What it is saying is that no child placement agency shall be denied certain things because of their sincerely held religious beliefs," Humphries said. "It doesn't give them any extra rights. I would love to assure you that something that's discriminatory is not the intention of this bill."
She said the bill's proponents sought a legal environment in Kansas that provided operation of as many child placement agencies as possible. State law should be permissive about what type of person these organizations view as foster or adoptive parents.
"We don't want to lose any," Humphries said. "We want a wide variety that serves a wide variety of families. Faith-based agencies have come under fire in other states."
The negotiating committee's Democrats, Sen. David Haley and Rep. Louis Ruiz, both of Kansas City, Kan., said they would refuse to sign the legislation drafted by the GOP majority. Both said the notion of a sincerely held religious belief wasn't adequately defined in the bill and would leave the meaning open to interpretation by organizations authorized to influence DCF adoptions and foster care placements.
"I don't know how this vampire just won't die for this session," said Haley, who is African-American. "The drumbeat grows louder. Many feel it is a regressive, discriminatory measure. This perception has resonated in other states. Certainly, North Carolina is a clear example."
Ruiz said it was impossible for him to support a move to embed in Kansas statute books a law intended to enable discrimination of Kansans. He said the bill could be used by state contractors to deny Muslims the opportunity to adopt children or provide foster care, he said.
"Growing up as I have and being discriminated against, hearing stories that my parents told me about being discriminated against and seeing my children being discriminated against, I cannot support discrimination of any type," Ruiz said.
Under current state law in Kansas, private faith-based agencies that don't receive state financing are free to refuse to place children with same-sex couples or transgender individuals as long as that action didn't discriminate on the basis of national origin, color or race. Perhaps one-third of the 35 adoption agencies operating in Kansas are affiliated with religious organizations.
Lobbying by gay rights and religious based organizations on the legislation has been intense, but it wasn't clear when the House and Senate would vote on the measure.
Other Republicans on the conference committee were Rep. Ron Highland, of Wamego; Sen. Rick Wilborn, of McPherson; and Sen. Julia Lynn, of Olathe.
Highland said the focus of debate on the bill should be on the thousands of children who are wards of the state.
"This is an important bill," he said. "We've all heard from both sides on the bill, but it's about the children. It's protecting those entities from other groups outside wanting to eliminate all religious-based adoption agencies from being involved in this process."
In 2014, the Kansas House passed a bill that would have provided private businesses the option of declining service to customers based on sincerely held religious beliefs. The Senate blocked the legislation, with Republicans and Democrats viewing the bill as discriminatory.