Discriminatory adoption bill narrowly defeated in Illinois Senate

Tue. March 22, 2011 2:25 PM by Joseph Erbentraut

Springfield, Illinois - In large part due to impassioned lobbying from LGBT and civil rights advocates in Springfield, Ill., a piece of legislation that likely would have impacted the ability of gay and lesbian parents to adopt from certain faith-based agencies narrowly failed to advance beyond a committee vote March 15.

But the danger of Senate Bill 1993 reached even farther than that, according to advocates who opposed the measure. As it was written, the bill would have allowed faith-based adoption agencies to consider an applicant for adoption's religion as part of their decision-making process. While most clearly affecting atheist or agnostic applicants, the measure, according to long-time Chicago gay activist Rick Garcia, was specifically designed to offer a pretext to discriminate against potential adoptive parents who are gay or lesbian.

"Illinois has had a very long record of allowing foster care and adoption by gay people, including both single people and couples, and any agency that takes government money - be it city, state or federal - should not be able to discriminate against any group of people," Garcia told GoPride.com.

"It would be wrong to exempt some organizations from following the law," he added.

Four of the nine members -- one short of the majority needed -- of the state Senate's Human Services Committee agreed with Garcia in a vote that largely followed party lines. Republicans Pamela Althoff, Tim Bivins, Darin LaHood and Dave Syverson voted in support of the bill while Democrats William Delgado, Mattie Hunter, Terry Link and Heather Steans voted against it. Steve Landek (D-Bridgeview) voted "present." The bill has been reassigned to the Assignments committee and, effectively, killed.

Steans, Garcia noted, was particularly outspoken in her opposition to the bill, as she joined Garcia and the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) Illinois chapter in actively lobbying against its passage. Steans has been a staunch pro-LGBT ally since she was elected to the Senate in 2008 and introduced marriage equality legislation in 2009.

John Knight, LGBT program director for ACLU Illinois said he was "thrilled" by the bill's failure, adding that its passage would have narrowed the pool of potential placements for many children awaiting adoption in the state. The bill, he argued, was unconstitutional.

"I think you have to look carefully at the bill to understand the potential harm involved by allowing religious adoption agencies to discriminate on the basis of their own religion," Knight said. "The bill is written to talk about how the children's best interests have to be a primary factor, but the bill is actually discriminatory and potentially very harmful."

Republican state Senator Shane Cultra (R-Onarga), the bill's sponsor, voted against the civil unions bill last year and has, on the Senate floor, suggested that equal legal protections for LGBT people could lead to similar protections for pedophiles or people who have sex with animals. He also supported an attempt in 2005 to dismantle the then recently passed Illinois Human Rights Act. Garcia described him as a "hard no" vote on any pro-gay proposal.

In the midst of a state review into three faith-based adoption and foster care agencies' policies of denying licenses to gay and lesbian couples, the legislation's failure takes on added significance as those agencies may risk losing state funding if they refuse to change their policies. While the Illinois Human Rights Act allows for exemptions for religious institutions, the issue is not so simple when those institutions are contracted to provide a service on the state's behalf.

Garcia also noted that several other anti-gay bills have also been introduced to the Illinois General Assembly this year. The bills include one attempt to overturn the civil unions law and constitutional amendments -- proposed in both the Senate and House -- to ban recognition of same-sex marriage.

While none of those proposals have gained much traction at this time, Garcia urged LGBT advocates to remain vigilant of the potential harm. In a Windy City Times piece published Monday, he criticized Equality Illinois, the organization he co-founded and was controversially fired from late last year, for not taking an active role in speaking out against SB 1993 and the other anti-gay proposals.

Equality Illinois CEO Bernard Cherkasov explained that his organization opposed the bill from the outset because "it is never acceptable for an agency to accept public taxpayer funds to offer services on behalf of the State and then substitute its own, discriminatory criteria for the public's priorities." He continued, "In this case, this is especially unacceptable because a religious agency would replace the State's best-interest-of-the-child standard with its own religious priorities. This is a great disservice to the children waiting for adoption or foster care."

Cherkasov further explained that "strategically, it is sometimes better for an LGBT equality organization to take a lower-profile role than to antagonize our opponents and risk losing a crucial vote." LGBT organizations and allies used a similar approach in advocating for other bills, such as the Safe Schools Act, enacted a year ago.

"It's critical for our community to be vigilant, have a very strong presence in the state capitol and communicate with our legislators. We thank them for their support and we have to let them know what's going on," Garcia concluded. "It's not enough to pass good legislation, but we also have to protect the gains we've made."