Every year, millions of Christians in the U.S. mark the National Day of Prayer—the first Thursday in May—by turning to the Lord, imploring Him to protect and guide their country
This year, that day saw some of those prayers dramatically answered.
On May 3, legislators in two states—Kansas and Oklahoma—passed Adoption Protection Acts. These laws prevent government agencies and contractors from discriminating against faith-based adoption and foster-care agencies based on their religious beliefs, such as the need to place children with opposite-sex married couples. They also protect those agencies against lawsuits by individuals and groups such as the ACLU.
The victories didn’t come easily, however. In both cases, the bills passed on the last day of the legislative session and were later signed into law. And in both cases, they came close to never passing at all.
In Kansas, the bill needed 63 votes in the House to pass. It got them with none to spare. And it got them at the last minute, says Eric Teetsel, president of the Family Policy Alliance of Kansas, Focus on the Family’s public-policy partner in the state.
“When some of us gathered to pray that morning, we knew there were many, many obstacles to overcome,” he says. “The final vote came late at night, and just a few hours before, we thought we were three votes short.”
And while the Oklahoma bill passed both chambers by wide margins, it repeatedly came close to being blocked or sabotaged along the way.
“We had multiple near-death experiences,” says Catholic Conference of Oklahoma Executive Director Brett Farley. “There were powerful people in key positions working against the bill. Several times, they almost succeeded.”
What’s at stake is the freedom of faith-based agencies to operate by their convictions. Across the country, LGBT activists are pressing state and local child-welfare authorities to refuse to work with anyone who won’t place children in same-sex households.
Illinois, Massachusetts and the District of Colombia have enacted laws along those lines, driving both Catholic and evangelical agencies out of adoption and foster-care services.
Just this year, Philadelphia ended its contract with Catholic Social Services over the same issue. And in August, Catholic Charities of Buffalo (N.Y.) announced its withdrawal from adoption and foster care due to state regulations requiring child placement with homosexual couples.
“We’re seeing an increasingly aggressive effort to make faith-based agencies set aside their beliefs,” says Lance Kinzer, director of policy and government relations for the religious-liberty group 1st Amendment Partnership, based in Washington, D.C. “And children are paying the price.
“It’s simple logic that fewer agencies means fewer children placed in loving homes.”
Which is why 1st Amendment Partnership is promoting Adoption Protection Acts nationwide. States such as Michigan, Mississippi, North and South Dakota, Texas and Virginia have similar laws to those in Kansas and Oklahoma. Kinzer looks forward to seeing those numbers grow.
“It’s only right,” he says. “These agencies aren’t asking for new, special treatment. They’re just asking to preserve the status quo they’ve always known—to provide services while following the sincerely held religious beliefs that motivated them to do this work to begin with.”
When the Bagpipes Played
Teetsel knew early on that the Adoption Protection Act in Kansas would have a tough journey. It faced resistance in the House from some strategically positioned legislators and intense opposition from LGBT lobbyists on both the state and national level, including the influential Human Rights Campaign (HRC) in Washington, D.C. Misinformation spread widely, with some of the bill’s opponents claiming that it would ban same-sex couples from adopting at all.
Countering all that took a lot of work. By a lot of people.
“For months, I spent virtually every day at the Capitol meeting with lawmakers and getting our message out,” Teetsel says. “And we were one player among many fighting for the bill. There was a strong coalition of faith groups working hard. They really came through, and every member was vital.”
Long story short, after various parliamentary battles, a tweaked version of the original Adoption Protection Act would need four votes on the last day of the session—two procedural votes in each chamber, followed by two final votes. And while things looked like clear sailing in the Senate, the House was problematic.
The first vote required merely a majority of members voting, and got it—60 votes. The second vote would take a majority of all members—63.
“We needed three more and didn’t know where we were going to find them, after weeks and weeks of lobbying and asking our grassroots people to call their legislators,” Teetsel says. “But we had to keep trying.”
The next few hours were tense ones. And then, as legislators filed back in at 8:30 p.m. after a dinner break, something happened to break the tension.
“I heard bagpipes started to play somewhere in the building,” Teetsel says. “I didn’t know who was playing them or where, but they were playing ‘Amazing Grace.’ “
Turned out there was a troupe of bagpipers and drummers playing under the Capitol dome. Teetsel, among others, took it as a message.
“It was one of those moments in life where you can feel the presence of God,” he tells Citizen. “You know that He is working. It was like this was His way of saying, ‘I’ve got this. You don’t need to be afraid.’ “
The bill passed around 11:30 p.m., 63-58. A 24-15 Senate victory followed a couple hours later—around 1:15 a.m., as Teetsel recalls. A few minutes later, Gov. Chris Colyer issued a statement confirming his intention to sign the bill.
Technically, the National Day of Prayer was over. But the prayers of thanks weren’t.
“I said to some people, ‘God doesn’t call us to be successful, he calls us to be obedient—but winning feels pretty good, too,’ ” Teetsel says.
Colyer signed the bill on May 18 at a Christian residential-care facility, Youth Horizons Kinloch Price Boys Ranch in Valley Center, just north of Wichita. Teetsel found that a fitting spot.
“States should honor the people whose faith moves them to help kids in need,” he says. “Not every state does. But Kansas has made it clear: Everyone is welcome here.”
‘There Was Yelling and Screaming’
In some ways, Oklahoma’s Adoption Protection Act looked likely to have a smoother path than in Kansas. Social conservatives had a stronger hand in both legislative chambers. And “LGBT groups were less organized than they were in Kansas,” Farley says—”though they were very loud.”
But as in Kansas, there were strategically positioned legislators on important committees who strongly opposed the bill. And while it also had powerful supporters—its Senate sponsor was then-Majority Leader Greg Treat—its opponents could make plenty of trouble.
Also as in Kansas, the most serious threat came in the House. After the Senate passed the bill (SB 1140) in March, the House did likewise in late April—but with a last-minute amendment that stripped vital language applying to state or federal funding. In effect, that meant agencies that take those funds for any purpose at all—whether adoption-related or not—weren’t protected. For example, Catholic Charities could still be sued over its adoption policies because it also takes government funds for disaster aid and support for the homeless.
“That effectively gutted the bill,” Farley says. “It actually might have been worse than no bill at all: It painted a lawsuit target on the back of faith-based adoption agencies.”
The process by which this amendment ended up on the bill was not without dirty tricks. At one point in the House, a motion was offered to remove it, but the presiding officer on the floor at that moment—an SB 1140 opponent—declared the amendment tabled while most legislators were out of the room.
“Two-thirds of the members were out of the chambers returning from lunch,” Farley says. “It became clear this highly unusual move had been coordinated among the bill’s opponents.”
When all was said and done, the Senate had to remove the amendment in another floor vote and pass it all over again on the last day of the session, by a resounding 33-7 vote. That sent the bill back to the House—where opponents did everything they could to block it, if nothing else by running out the legislative clock in the final hours.
And that’s when things got ugly.
“It was the closest I’ve ever seen to members literally coming to blows,” Farley says. “There was yelling and screaming. There were endless procedural objections; they were pulling out the handbook, looking for anything they could use to stop the bill. The presiding officer had to loudly gavel opponents out of order multiple times.
“It culminated with the majority leader telling two different members ‘Don’t touch me again’ and ordering the sergeant at arms to remove certain members from the floor because they refused to comply with basic rules of decorum.”
When the ruckus was over, the bill had passed, 56-21. Farley wasn’t quite ready to relax, though. Opponents—including some in the business community, fearing boycotts against the state—were pressuring Gov. Mary Fallin to pocket-veto the measure.
A week passed, while Farley checked in with Fallin’s office every day. Then, on May 11, Fallin quietly signed the bill into law.
“We didn’t know until we logged onto the Senate website and saw it was posted as signed,” Farley says. “But she did sign—and now it’s the law.”
More Adoptions, More Choices
In states across the country during this year’s legislative session, HRC identified more than 100 pieces of legislation on several topics they called “anti-LGBTQ.” None became law—except the two adoption bills in Kansas and Oklahoma.
Why would laws protecting faith-based adoption agencies succeed in overcoming the LGBT lobby where others fail?
For answers, start by considering the real-world impact of these laws. Ask Chris Campbell. He’s executive director of 111Project of Oklahoma, which mobilizes local churches to engage with the child-welfare system in a range of areas, including foster care and adoption.
“Up until now in Oklahoma, the number of people and groups participating in the system has been limited because they haven’t been clear on whether their values are protected,” Campbell says.
The Adoption Protection Act will change that for the better, he says—bringing more faith-based people into the system while protecting those already providing valuable services.
“I think laws like this are important because they clarify that everyone’s welcome to participate—that in Oklahoma, no matter what your religious affiliation is, we need your help in solving the child-welfare crisis,” Campbell says. “You can maintain your values, your culture, your heritage, your faith.”
To Campbell, the claim that this law is “exclusionary” because it protects groups that won’t place children with same-sex couples gets things backwards.
“This law doesn’t restrict the number of families who can foster or adopt,” he says. “It clearly opens the door for more of them to participate.”
That’s one of the reasons Kinzer thinks such laws are so important.
“A lot of these faith-based agencies have an ability to connect people of faith in these processes in a way other agencies couldn’t,” he says. “And often they’re motivated to adopt children who are hardest to place. They want to give women good options instead of abortion.
“We need those options. It’s just shocking when you look at the numbers: We’re hovering around a million abortions a year and 18,000 infant adoptions. That’s an incredible discrepancy. It’s ironic that those who talk most about ‘choice’ are undercutting choice by forcing those who would assist women out of the marketplace.”
And speaking of choice, Kinzer notes that there’s another type of choice faith-based agencies provide for birth mothers—not only more adoptive families, but also the kind of families some of those women want their children to have.
“One of the things that’s most important about these laws is that they respect the desire of birth mothers to place their children in stable, married families with both a mother and a father,” he says. “Many birth mothers want that for their child. Some also want families that share their faith tradition.”
The bottom line: More adoptions—and more choices—are widely recognized as good things. And Kinzer says that provides an opportunity to show the public that religious freedom is good, and not only for religious people.
“We need to show people that religious freedom produces real benefits for society,” he says. “Adoption is the kind of issue that does that. It gives us a chance to educate—to show people those benefits.”
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Originally published in the November 2018 issue of Citizen magazine.