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Published February 21, 2012, 04:13 PM

Va. passes contentious gay adoption bill; Measure modeled after North Dakota's statute

RICHMOND, Va. — Private adoption agencies could deny placing children with prospective parents who are gay under a bill that received final approval in the Virginia General Assembly on Tuesday.

By: Associated Press, INFORUM

RICHMOND, Va. — Private adoption agencies could deny placing children with prospective parents who are gay under a bill that received final approval in the Virginia General Assembly on Tuesday.

The Senate voted 22-18 to pass the bill and send it to Republican Gov. Bob McDonnell, who has said he will sign it. Virginia will become just the second state with such a law, which proponents said was modeled after North Dakota's statute. The legislation allows agencies to deny placements that conflict with their moral or religious beliefs, including opposition to homosexuality.

Supporters of the "conscience clause" measure said it protects the religious rights of private agencies, many of them faith-based, that contract with the state to provide adoption and foster care services. The legislation is based on regulations adopted by the Virginia Board of Social Services in December. Converting those regulations into law would ensure that a future administration could not change them without legislative approval.

The legislature's Democratic minority vehemently opposed the legislation, saying the intent is clearly to make it tougher for gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgendered Virginians to form families.

"It's the first step toward actually outlawing adoption by LGBT people," Sen. Adam Ebbin, D-Alexandria and the General Assembly's only openly gay member, said in a floor speech.

Sen. Mark Herring, D-Fairfax, said agencies' moral or religious beliefs should not take precedence over the best interests of the child.

Republican Sen. Frank Wagner of Virginia Beach briefly explained the bill on the Senate floor, but no supporters addressed the merits or responded to critics. However, the president of the Family Foundation of Virginia later called the Senate's action "a tremendous victory for religious liberty and an affirmation of the critical role faith-based organizations play in providing hope and security for thousands of children and families in Virginia."

"This important legislation does not in any way change current Virginia law regarding who can adopt in Virginia; it simply confirms that faith-based agencies will not be discriminated against by the state simply for acting according to their faith principles," foundation president Victoria Cobb said in a statement.

Senate Democrats issued their own statement branding the measure as "yet another example of the divisive, extreme legislation that has dominated this session — to the detriment of ordinary Virginians." Emboldened by electoral gains in November, majority Republicans have pushed a conservative agenda that includes new anti-abortion measures, expansion of gun-owners' rights and voter identification requirements that Democrats say will curb minority voting.

All 20 Republicans voted for the bill and were joined by Democrats Charles J. Colgan of Prince William County and Phillip Puckett of Russell County.

The Child Welfare League of America sent a letter to senators earlier in the session urging them to reject the bill, saying it would make it more difficult to place the approximately 1,300 Virginia children waiting for a home.

The American Civil Liberties Union also opposed the bill.

"This is truly troubling legislation that in essence codifies state-supported discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation, which is not only unconstitutional but also unconscionable as it will deny many parentless children the family placements they so desperately need," Kent Willis, executive director of the ACLU of Virginia, said in an email.

Virginia has 120 local departments of social services, which administer adoption and foster care services. There are 77 state-licensed private child placement agencies that local departments can contract with to provide those services.

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Copyright 2012 The Associated Press.

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