Washington • At Thursday’s National Prayer Breakfast, President Donald Trump introduced a family he called “inspiring to us all” — the Bucks from Michigan, who have adopted five children.
Trump pivoted from warmly praising the Bucks' "beautiful" children, including 10-year-old Max and 9-year-old Liz who attended the breakfast, to a darker note: "Unfortunately, the Michigan adoption agency that brought the Buck family together is now defending itself in court for living by the values of its Catholic faith."
“My administration,” he promised to the room full of religious leaders, most of them conservative Christians, “is working to ensure that faith-based adoption agencies are able to help vulnerable children find their forever families while following their deeply held beliefs.”
How is Trump doing that? Why are these adoption agencies being challenged? Trump didn't explain before moving on to discuss international religious persecution, the U.S. border and the survival of a premature baby named Grayson. But it is a long-running question for policymakers: whether adoption and foster-care agencies run by religious groups, but funded by the federal government, should be allowed to pick the homes in which they place children based on the religion and sexuality of the parents.
Some adoption and foster-care agencies, citing their religious beliefs, refuse to place children in the homes of same-sex couples. Others will place children only with Christian parents.
Some state laws specifically grant religious adoption and foster-care agencies the right to refuse same-sex parents. That's the case in Michigan, where the Bucks adopted their five children. That policy faces a lawsuit from the American Civil Liberties Union.
On a national level, the debate over this issue centers on a regulation put in place by the Obama administration just days before President Barack Obama left office. Programs that receive federal funding through the Department of Health and Human Services, according to the Obama administration rule, are barred from discriminating on the basis of religion, gender identity or sexual orientation. The rule specifically says that under the Supreme Court's decision that legally recognized same-sex marriage nationwide, "all recipients must treat as valid the marriages of same-sex couples."
A South Carolina adoption agency that works only with Christian parents — turning away a Jewish mother who wanted to become a foster parent — petitioned for an exemption from the HHS rule, with the support of South Carolina's Republican governor. The department said yes to the request for an exemption in late January.
That HHS decision prompted outcries from advocates of same-sex parents and religious pluralism, who feared the spread of exemptions for Christian organizations to flout federal rules.
Leslie Cooper, who works on LGBT issues for the ACLU, said that the attorney general of Texas has asked for a waiver similar to South Carolina's, and other states across the country could follow suit. "We can't afford to have good families cast aside based on a religious test," she said.
When Catholic adoption agencies once stopped operating in locations including the District of Columbia and Massachusetts because of their opposition to gay parents, Cooper said, "other agencies seamlessly took over that work, including faith-based agencies. . . . The problem isn't a shortage of agencies. The problem is a shortage of families. And allowing agencies . . . to turn away lovely families — that only makes the shortage of families a bigger problem."
On the other hand, some Christian advocates said HHS should go even further and revoke the Obama rule entirely, so that no foster-care agencies are obligated to follow the nondiscrimination rule.
Trump has made policy promises at the National Prayer Breakfast, but on Thursday, he did not specify what he meant by saying his administration would protect such agencies. It might mean more exemptions, or an outright revocation of the rule, or something else.
"This is a fight that doesn't need to happen. The status quo is, there's a diversity of agencies. And it doesn't make anything more available to close down religious agencies because they have the wrong beliefs. It just takes away an option," said Mark Rienzi, the president of the Becket Fund. The law firm, which focuses on religious liberty, advocates for the faith-based agencies. "Sometimes the presentation of this issue can suggest that the religious agencies are stopping people from being adoptive and foster parents. It's just not true. There are lots of agencies. There really is an easy live-and-let-live solution."
Currey Cook, director of Lambda Legal's Youth in Out-of-Home Care Project and Counsel, said Trump's remarks on adoption surprised him because it was the first time he had heard him speak about adoption providers specifically.
"This administration is now prioritizing the interests of providers instead of the interests of children," said Cook. "It's the first time we've seen from a government shifting their priority.
"These agencies receive government work. If they're going to accept government funds, they need to be treating everyone equally," he said. "If you can't do that with your government funds, maybe this isn't the way for you to help."
Adoption-agency-related cases are part of a long list of battles fought between those who fear their religious rights being taken away versus those who see discrimination, said Charles Haynes, founding director of the Religious Freedom Center at the Newseum.
"This is a very emotional people issue for people on all sides. It hits close to home for many of them," said Haynes. "A lot of religious people feel like their rights are under attack now that LGBT rights are advancing. They see this as an attack and their freedom."
The debate, he said, is part of the breakdown in our consensus about what religious freedom means.
“On the other side, this is deeply hurtful, not just for LGBT Americans but other Americans who feel that discrimination is discrimination,” Haynes said. “They see religious freedom as protecting the rights of people, but they don’t see religious freedom as a license to hurt other people.”