NASHVILLE, Tenn. – Tennessee lawmakers passed a controversial measure this week that protects religious adoption agencies if they choose to discriminate against same-sex couples.
The bill declares that no licensed adoption agency would be required to participate in a child placement if doing so would “violate the agency’s written religious or moral convictions or policies.”
It also prohibits the state from denying an agency’s license or grant application for public funds because of the group’s refusal to place a child with a family based on religious objections. The adoption agency would also be protected from lawsuits for such a refusal.
The state Senate passed the bill 20-6, with five Republican members declining to vote on the measure, including Lt. Gov. Randy McNally.
The House passed the bill in April, and eight other states around the country have passed similar legislation. The bill, which never made its way to the Senate floor in 2019, will now head to Gov. Bill Lee for his signature.
Lee’s office on Tuesday afternoon confirmed that the governor would be signing the bill as soon as it reaches his desk.
In a rare move, McNally left his speaker’s chair Tuesday to debate the legislation on the floor, arguing that Tennessee has already implemented strong religious freedom protections. He suggested the bill, sponsored by GOP Sen. Paul Rose could potentially threaten those.
But along with McNally, multiple Republican members on Tuesday argued against passing the bill, despite only casting neutral “present” votes.
Sen. Steve Dickerson was among those debating the bill, challenging Rose’s intentions and arguing that the state would suffer financial and economic development impacts for such a “bad public policy.”
He was the sole Republican to join the chamber’s five Democrats in voting against the legislation.
Dickerson said he has spoken with representatives from the tourism industry who, over the past six months, have inquired about the status of the bill on behalf of various conventions and large events eyeing Tennessee.
He mentioned the NFL draft, NCAA basketball playoffs, NHL events and businesses eyeing the state.
“I think we can probably kiss that goodbye,” Dickerson said.
Republican Sen. Jon Lundberg pointed to the Tennessee Religious Freedom and Protection Act passed in 2009, while Lundberg was serving in the House, and said Rose’s bill language seemed to duplicate that.
“Is this not just a restatement of our 2009 legislation?” Lundberg asked.
Senate Minority Leader Jeff Yarbro, a Democrat, unsuccessfully tried to amend the bill to only offer protections on licensing and legal challenges to adoption agencies who are not receiving public funds.
He argued that there is no movement afoot in Tennessee to shut down religious adoption agencies.
“There is no threat by the federal government, there is no threat by the state government,” Yarbro said. “I am unaware of anything that is trying to close these things down.”
Democratic Sen. Raumesh Akbari told a story about her childhood friend who grew up in the foster care system and suffered sexual and physical abuse.
Her friend is now an adult in a same-sex relationship and has adopted two children who “had an alternative to be essentially an orphan,” Akbari said.
“To me, it boils down to safety,” she said. “It boils down to them being happy, being free from abuse, and to feel like they belong.”
Among the groups supporting the bill has been the Southern Baptist Convention’s Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission.
The Tennessee Equality Project, a statewide LGBTQ advocacy group, has opposed the bill, arguing it will lead to discrimination against same-sex couples who are turned away by religious agencies and result in longer wait times for children to be placed into homes.
Follow Natalie Allison on Twitter: @natalie_allison.