In 2020, Tennessee Gov. Bill Lee (R) signed into law a a “religious freedom” bill ensuring that foster care and adoption agencies could continue to be eligible to receive taxpayer funding even if they refuse to serve same-sex foster and adoptive parents. Now, he is launching a campaign aimed at tapping directly into churches and other houses of worship to increase the number of foster and adoptive homes in the state.
Last week, Lee announced the formation of TN Fosters Hope, a statewide collaborative campaign to get churches more involved in meeting the needs of the 8,000 kids in the Tennessee foster care system, which includes about 350 who are awaiting adoption. According to data provided to The Imprint by Tennessee, there were just over 5,000 licensed foster homes in the state in 2020.
The program seeks to engage state agencies, community groups, businesses and churches to provide children and families quality care.
“When we join forces with the faith community and trusted partners like Tennessee Kids Belong and Show Hope, we can help Tennessee foster kids find permanent, loving homes,” said Lee, in a statement announcing the campaign. “I am calling on the faith community to join us as we work to build one of the most adoption-friendly states in the country.”
Running point on the initiative with the governor’s office is Tennessee Kids Belong, one of the 12 state affiliates of America’s Kids Belong, which focuses on connecting government with the business and faith communities to increase the number of foster and adoptive homes. The Tennessee office counts the state’s former first lady, Crissy Haslam, among its board members, and worked on a similar campaign with former Gov. Bill Haslam in 2016.
In 2019, Tennessee became the most recent state to take legislative action in the name of religious freedom for child welfare providers. Since the Supreme Court ruled in Obergefell v. Hodges that same-sex marriage is the law of the land, 11 states have passed laws shielding faith-based providers from adverse consequences for discriminating against same-sex couples, single adults or those of another faith or denomination.
Both sides in the issue claim to be seeking to defend themselves against religious discrimination. On the politically conservative side, as in Tennessee, the argument is that faith-based adoption and foster service organizations should not be forced to abandon their religious ideology in order to contract with the state. Most religious providers have no problem serving same-sex couples or people of another faith, but some have said they can not continue their work if they are required to do so.
On the other side, advocates for LGBTQ people say the government should not endorse faith-based groups’ religious discrimination against them by giving the providers government grants or contracts. Moreover, they argue that adoption agencies that refuse to work with LGBT families limit the opportunities for kids to be cared for in loving homes.
Just before President Donald Trump left office, he used his executive powers to take the side of the faith-based groups, but the new Biden administration quickly announced plans to reverse the policy. Meanwhile, the strongly conservative U.S. Supreme Court is weighing a case dealing with the issue, and Republican lawmakers in both houses of the closely divided Congress have introduced legislation on the side of the faith-based groups.