Legislation that would allow all agencies licensed to make foster care or adoption placement decisions to decide who they serve based on religious or moral beliefs is currently under consideration in Virginia and recently passed the House of Delegates. The so-called "conscience clause" legislation also would prohibit the state from denying or revoking a license based on the failure to comply with rules if an agency cites a religious or moral objection. New research by the Williams Institute, a research center at the UCLA School of Law that focuses on sexual orientation and gender identity law and policy, suggests that such legislation may have undesirable social and fiscal impacts on the state.
The passage of this type of legislation would very likely reduce the parents available to children in Virginia by making it more difficult to place them in caring and safe homes, including lesbian and gay households. Today, an estimated 1,700 adopted children and 300 foster children are being raised by single lesbians and gay men in the state. Perhaps as many as 40,000 lesbians and gay men would consider adopting a child. They comprise a vital part of the child welfare system.
In their more than 20-year study of lesbian families conducted by psychiatrist Nanette Gartrell, M.D. and colleagues, dozens of published research articles show that the children raised by lesbian moms fare as well as other children in all standard measures of child well-being. These findings are consistent with an overwhelming amount of social science research showing that lesbians and gay men are as loving and caring toward their children as any parents. Restricting their ability to care for the most vulnerable children in need of stable homes is not in the best interest of these children and comes with a cost.
By restricting the pool of potential adoptive and foster parents, Virginia risks having more children placed in state care if private-child placing agencies are unable to find appropriate homes. If appropriate foster and adoptive homes cannot be identified, foster children and children awaiting adoption may be placed in congregate care, which increases the annual cost to the state by $2,000 per child. It also means that fewer children will be adopted from private child-placing agencies, and these children will remain in foster care. The state saves nearly $30,000 per year for each child adopted out of the foster care system.
While the precise impact on the Virginia budget will depend on the number of lesbian and gay parents who are excluded from adopting or fostering if this legislation passes, a joint study by D.C.'s Urban Institute and the Williams Institute found that a national ban on fostering (and subsequent adoption) by lesbian, gay, and bisexual parents would cost the federal government as much as $130 million a year.
More broadly, economic research clearly demonstrates that discrimination is an economic drain on the budgets of governments, businesses, and families. Prominent urban theorist and University of Toronto Professor Richard Florida has shown that communities with more accepting attitudes toward diversity, including openness to the LGBT population, have higher housing prices and wages. These areas attract innovative and entrepreneurial companies who value a diverse workforce and will pay good wages to retain them.
Conversely, a recent study in Ohio suggests that intolerance toward LGBT neighbors reduces home values. An analysis of the Columbus housing market showed that residents who evidenced intolerance toward LGBT people sometimes sell low in order to avoid having lesbian or gay neighbors, reducing overall home prices.
Protecting freedom of religious expression is without question a core American value. But so too is protecting our nation's most vulnerable children by finding them safe, stable, and loving homes and ensuring that they have the best opportunity for lifetime success. Virginia's proposed law goes well beyond protection of religious freedom by affirming the right to discriminate in adoption and foster placement by any agency (religiously based or otherwise) based on any moral objection to certain types of parents. Lawmakers should consider the breadth of this action and the degree to which it may create additional obstacles for placing needy children with good parents in a state that already has one of the lowest rates of such placements.
Discrimination will no doubt cost the state financially, but it may well cost even more socially, as generations of Virginia's children are raised in sub-optimal conditions of congregate care rather than within a loving and safe home. Rather than finding ways to make adoption and fostering more difficult and exclusive, Virginia's legislators would be better served to focus on the needs of children and do everything they can to find the most qualified and competent adoptive and foster parents to care for the state's most vulnerable and needy children.