As America grows evermore accepting of the LGBT community, some religious communities have opened their congregations to people of different sexual orientations, but religiously affiliated adoption agencies have been slow to change.
“There are a lot of private organizations that are religiously affiliated that are huge in terms of providing resources for children,” said Shawn Long, director of operations for the LGBT advocacy group Equality N.C.
“Clearly if they are unwilling to work with LGBT individuals or couples, then that removes a resource not just for the couple seeking to find a kid, but it also prevents the children from having the possibility of a certain, forever-family.”
While same-sex couples have gained the right to marry as part of June’s landmark Supreme Court ruling in Obergefell v. Hodges, state laws can still leave gay couples open to discrimination.
Without nondiscrimination laws, private adoption agencies can choose whether to allow same-sex applicants. Religiously affiliated organizations might also have exceptions granted to them based on religious freedom laws, particularly recent ones that have been passed in the wake of court decisions favoring same-sex couples.
Holning Lau, a UNC law professor who studies sexuality and gender laws, said the Supreme Court’s decision in June affirmed a “fundamental right to marry,” but there has never been any such right to adopt a child.
“Private agencies can still apply their own criteria and discriminate against same-sex couples,” said Lau, who is also on the American Civil Liberties Union of N.C. board.
Lutheran Services Carolinas is an adoption agency that has gained a reputation for being welcoming to all applicants, regardless of religious beliefs or sexual orientation.
Mary Ann Johnson, a spokesperson for LSC, said the organization has been placing children with same-sex couples since before 1992, but a definitive date is tough to pin down because it wasn’t a formalized policy decision. She attributes the organization’s acceptance of capable same-sex couples to Bill Brittian, a UNC-Chapel Hill alumnus who founded the adoption organization in 1976.
“He wanted all children to have a home and that was his only goal was to make sure that children found adoptive homes,” she said. “He wanted people to have a good home and that was what guided him, and he set the tone for the agency.”
Kimberla Burrows, LSC’s special needs adoption program manager, said the organization averages about 25-30 finalized adoptions a year and restricting who can apply to adopt would mean fewer placements.
“We have adopted children into homes that did not believe in anything — they were atheists; I’ve placed children into homes with same-sex couples,” Burrows said. “As long as they are capable of taking care of a child then that’s what’s important to us.”
Long, of Equality N.C., said overcoming obstacles to gay adoption is a matter of breaking down the stigma around same-sex couples through education and exposure to LGBT families.
“We are all ordinary families,” he said. “We all have the same set of problems and issues and challenges. We are all alike. There may be some few differences, but they’re all superficial.”
Still, challenges to gay adoption in the South are more pervasive than just stigma. Mississippi, for instance, has an outright ban on adoption by same-sex couples.
A lawsuit challenging the ban was filed in August by four same-sex couples, as well as the Campaign for Southern Equality and the Family Equality Council. Mississippi’s law is such an anachronism that UNC law professor Maxine Eichner was surprised to find out about it.
“Mississippi is the only one of their kind that simply states an outright ban on same-sex couples,” Eichner said. “It seems quite clear how that one will play out in wake of the Obergefell decision.”
Mississippi is the only state with such a ban, but it’s indicative of a larger trend in the South: a reluctance to step away from traditional beliefs, despite the social, and now legal, push to do so.
“At what point," Long said, "do you side with dogma over just actual humanity?”
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