Del. Mark Levine, D-Alexandria. (Ned Oliver/Virginia Mercury)
Del. Mark Levine, D-Alexandria. (Ned Oliver/Virginia Mercury)

Virginia lawmakers are on the verge of rolling back a state law that allows faith-based adoption and foster-care agencies to refuse service to LGBTQ families.

The legislation has spurred heated debate, with representatives of Catholic charitable organizations arguing that being forced to serve gay couples would violate their faith and civil rights advocates decrying the existing rules as state-sanctioned discrimination.

“To say that we can’t place children because they’re in gay families, and therefore they have to age out of the foster care system and not have a loving home, is cruel to these children,” said Del. Mark Levine, D-Alexandria, who proposed the repeal.

Virginia was the second state in the country to add what lawmakers called a “conscience clause” to its adoption laws in 2012 — language that guarantees religious adoption and foster care agencies the right to refuse any placement that “would violate the agency’s written religious or moral convictions or policies.”

Republican lawmakers, who then controlled the General Assembly and executive branch, passed the law a year after an unsuccessful push by LBGTQ groups to get the state’s social services board to revoke licenses from providers that engage in discrimination.

Now that Democrats control the legislature, some are ready to revisit the decision. A full repeal proposed by Levine passed the House on a party-line vote early this month.

Democrats in the Senate, however, said last week they are less comfortable with the measure, passing an amended version that would allow the groups to continue operating under the current rules, but cut state funding that helps finance their operations.

“This is a very difficult one, because many of us in here have 100 percent of the time voted for equality at every step of the way,” said Sen. Monty Mason, D-Williamsburg. But along with a handful of other Democrats on the chamber’s social services committee, Mason said he worried that revoking the organizations’ licenses would mean fewer kids in need of foster homes would get them. “I do not want to do anything to stand in the way of placing those children,” he said.

It’s unclear how many children and families a full repeal would affect. The Virginia Department of Social Services has told lawmakers that faith-based agencies are currently overseeing the foster placement of 372 children, which accounts for about 15 percent of all children in foster care. But only eight of those faith-based organizations may invoke the conscience clause, the department said.

Whether those agencies would cease operations in the event of a repeal remains to be seen, the department said. And, even if they did, the families working with the agencies would have two years to transfer to a different child-placing agency.

As for eliminating state funding, Jeff Caruso, the executive director of the Virginia Catholic Conference, said he is aware of at least three agencies that rely on the conscience clause and receive taxpayer funding for foster care, adoption and post-adoptions services: Commonwealth Catholic Charities, Catholic Charities of Eastern Virginia and the Barry Robinson Center. He said the organizations routinely refer couples they are unwilling to work with to other agencies.

Caruso told lawmakers last week that the Catholic Conference opposes any changes to the current law, but said that the amendment advanced by the Senate would at least protect organizations from having their licenses revoked.

“Preserve faith-based agencies,” he said. “They are an essential part of the community and an indispensable part of the solution.”

There is, however, disagreement on the subject even among faith-based groups that provide the services in Virginia. Ray Ratke, the CEO of enCircle, a Lutheran-affiliated family services organization, told lawmakers his organization supports a full repeal, which he said was in line with the church’s mission of “helping to make the world a more loving place.”

“Simply put, we believe it is wrong to discriminate against parents who are otherwise qualified to provide loving homes simply because of their identity,” Ratke said.

Likewise, LGBTQ-advocacy organizations called the Senate’s approach disappointing because it would allow state-sanctioned discrimination to continue.

“This is a step forward, but the state is still essentially sending the message that LGBT families are not welcome,” said Vee Lamneck, the director of Equality Virginia. “I know that it takes courage to foster and adopt. And it’s confusing for families that want to adopt and foster to know if they’re able to do so with the conscience clause still on the books.”

Republican lawmakers have unanimously opposed the legislation, arguing that it amounts to religious discrimination.

“I’m not Catholic, but I respect another individual’s religious rights, and that’s what disturbs me about this bill,” said Sen. Richard Stuart, R-Stafford. “I agree that we should not condone discrimination against lesbian or gay couples and they should have the same equal rights as everyone else, but as I understand it there are agencies that will work with those couples and place children with them.”

The U.S. Supreme Court is currently weighing a case out of Philadelphia that directly addresses the issue. Catholic Social Services sued the city in 2018 after officials barred the organization from placing children in foster homes because it refused to work with same-sex parents.

The court heard oral arguments in November.