One of the largest evangelical foster care and adoption agencies in the nation will now serve LGBTQ families everywhere it operates — a landmark shift in the child welfare field, where deep and enduring ties to faith communities have come into conflict with recent anti-discrimination laws and high court rulings.
“These days, families look a lot different than they did when we started. And Bethany is committed to welcoming and serving all of them,” Nathan Bult, a spokesman for the 75-year-old nonprofit Bethany Christian Services, told The Imprint. “For us to carry out our mission, we are building a broad coalition of people — finding families and resources for children in the greatest need.”
The Michigan-based organization placed as many as 3,400 children in foster care and coordinated 1,123 adoptions across 32 states in 2019. But until this week, it had relied on a patchwork approach among its affiliates when it came to deciding whether to connect needy children with LGBTQ parents.
In a Monday email to staff first reported by The New York Times, President and Chief Executive Chris Palusky changed course, telling his more than 1,000 employees “we will now offer services with the love and compassion of Jesus to the many types of families who exist in our world today.” Under the new approach he added: “all are welcome.”
The nonprofit’s carefully worded reversal comes amid a nationwide dispute over whether faith-based entities that receive taxpayer money should be able to selectively choose whom they serve based on religious ideology. While most of them are willing to work with anyone, some providers refuse to serve same-sex couples, single people or those of another faith.
Last month, President Joe Biden signed executive orders that will likely result in the reversal of Trump administration policies protecting federal funding for faith-based organizations excluding LGBTQ parents from their child-serving programs.
But in November, the Supreme Court heard oral arguments in one of several cases involving religious social services providers seeking to overturn local anti-discrimination laws. And since the Supreme Court legalized same-sex marriage in 2015, 11 states have passed legislation reinforcing protections for faith-based providers who seek to refer same-sex couples elsewhere.
Reaction to news of Bethany’s policy shift this week was divided, with youth and gay rights advocates heralding the move as beneficial to children as well as the adults who seek to care for them, and some faith-based leaders calling it misguided.
“People go into this business because they want to do what’s best for kids,” said Julie Kruse, a director with the Family Equality Council, an advocacy group that supports legal and lived equality for LGBTQ families. “And everybody in the child welfare system knows the system is failing LGBTQ kids terribly. Having discriminatory policies hurts kids.”
Kruse called Bethany’s policy change particularly meaningful for unaccompanied minors served by the agency, including LGBTQ youth who fled sexual and gender-based violence in Central America.
Estimates vary on the proportion of foster youth who identify as LGBTQ. One of the most recent studies, released late last year by New York City’s child welfare agency, found that more than one-third of foster youth ages 13 through 20 identify as lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender, queer, questioning, agender, asexual or intersex. The hundreds of youth surveyed also described grave challenges coping while in foster care, an already difficult experience. Few reported having adults in their lives who “they could rely on and who they felt supported by.”
But some faith-based groups are concerned over what they see as Bethany’s apparent capitulation on a fundamental question of religious liberty.
The leader of the Christian Alliance for Orphans said in an email that his community is “grappling deeply” with the shift.
“Most long to convey earnest love to every person. Most also long to stand faithfully by historic Christian commitments to marriage and family — not in contrast to that love, but because of it,” said Jedd Medefind, who also led the Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives in George W. Bush’s White House.
Medefind said in the public service sector, key questions remain: “Can government still welcome people of earnest faith and conviction to serve alongside others as part of a diverse safety net? Is diversity and pluralism still permissible, or must we all agree to the same orthodoxy in order to work together?”
Others see signs of a larger divide within the Christian faith.
“We are watching a great sorting unfold before our very eyes,” Denny Burk, a professor of biblical studies at Boyce College and Southern Seminary, tweeted Tuesday in response to The Times story about Bethany Christian. “When the pressure is on, some will follow Jesus, and some won’t. It’s only just begun.”
The American Academy of Pediatrics has reported that children “receive similar parenting whether they are raised by parents of the same or different genders.”
Yet, in a nation desperate for foster homes for more than 400,000 children who have been removed from their homes following abuse and neglect allegations, LGBTQ parents represent a large, often untapped pool of potential foster homes. The Family Equality Council has found they care for an estimated 3% of foster children and 4% of adopted children, and that millions of LGBTQ parents are interested in becoming foster parents.
Bethany Christian Services decided those families can no longer be denied. On Jan. 20, the organization’s corporate board overturned its 2007 resolution that stated “God’s perfect design for the family is a covenant and lifelong marriage of one man and one woman into which children can be born or adopted.”
The new resolution, passed unanimously, instead declares that Bethany “aspires to be a diverse coalition of Christians in pursuit of its mission,” and will “implement a nationwide policy of inclusivity in order to serve all families.”
After the board action, in late February, the organization commissioned a survey of nearly 700 Christian-identifying adults nationwide. The Christian polling firm Barna Group found 55% of respondents said children were either better off in an LGBTQ adoptive home than in foster care or that “sexual preference” should not determine who can foster or adopt.
More than three-fourths of those surveyed agreed, “at least somewhat,” that it was “better for Christian agencies to comply with government requirements pertaining to the LGBTQ community rather than shut down.”