Government & Politics

Lawmakers brace for 'firestorm' over adoption bill backed by Colyer, Catholic Church

What’s going on at the Kansas Department for Children and Families?

A brief timeline of the Kansas Department for Children and Families' recent issues.
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A brief timeline of the Kansas Department for Children and Families' recent issues.

Kansas lawmakers will face renewed pressure from Gov. Jeff Colyer’s administration and the Catholic Church to pass new protections for faith-based child placement agencies when they resume their session this week.

The Kansas House last month fell five votes short of passing legislation stating that no child placement agency shall be denied a license or contract “solely because of the agency’s objection to performing, assisting, counseling, recommending, consenting to, referring or otherwise participating in a placement that violates such agency’s sincerely held religious beliefs.”

Opponents say that the bill would enable taxpayer-funded discrimination against same-sex couples and that the administration hasn't been transparent about its motivations. Supporters say it would entice faith-based groups to expand their presence in Kansas and strengthen the overall child welfare system.

Gina Meier-Hummel, the new secretary of the Kansas Department for Children and Families, promised early in her tenure that she would have zero tolerance for discrimination of LGBT Kansans after her predecessor faced allegations that the agency had shown bias against same-sex couples.

“And here she is backing a bill that would be statutory discrimination against LGBT families,” said Tom Witt, the executive director of Equality Kansas, the state’s leading LGBT rights group.

Meier-Hummel’s agency has backed the push to add the protection for faith-based groups.

“It’s a pretty simple conversation for us; if we believe this will bring additional resources for children to the table, we’re all for it,” she said in an interview last week.

Meier-Hummel took the reins of the agency, which oversees foster care and adoption, on Dec. 1 after months of controversies surrounding missing children in the foster care system and children sleeping in offices because of a shortage of available beds in foster homes.

Nothing in Kansas law requires adoption agencies to serve all couples, but supporters say HB 2481 is needed, as anti-discrimination policies in other states have made it tougher for religious groups to operate.

Meier-Hummel pushed back on allegations that the bill would enable discrimination, saying other child placement agencies would still be able to place children with same-sex couples for adoptions or foster care.

“This doesn’t preclude anyone,” she said.

Meier-Hummel confirmed that Colyer, who became governor in January, supports the legislation.

And she repeatedly contended that the bill would enable Catholic Charities to expand and would attract other faith-based groups to the state. She did not name the other groups but said her agency thinks “there are organizations that will come in and operate next to us if these protections are allowed.”

Michael Schuttloffel, the lobbyist for the Kansas Catholic Conference, which represents the state’s Catholic bishops, said Catholic Charities has had to suspend its adoption services in other states because of anti-discrimination policies.

“The point of the bill is just to ensure that faith-based adoption providers can be free to serve the common good,” he said. “The Catholic Church has been involved in adoptions in this country for more than 300 years — before the Declaration of Independence.”

This bill, which is modeled on a Virginia law, would allow Catholic Charities to maintain operations or possibly expand, he said.

But like Meier-Hummel, he also hinted that other groups have indicated an interest in moving to Kansas if the bill is enacted.

“We’ve heard from some faith-based providers that have expressed an interest in expanding their capacity,” he said. “There’s kind of a climate of fear of people who are working in that field.”

He also declined to identify the other groups.

Rep. Jarrod Ousley, a Merriam Democrat, has formally requested information on contact between the agency and outside groups that would be interested in moving to Kansas.

“The name of this session has been transparency, and this isn’t very transparent,” said Ousley, who serves as the ranking Democrat on the House Committee on Children and Seniors.

“Tell me who, what, where. … The secretary wouldn’t name names,” he said. “I don’t even have a name of who is requesting this.”

DCF steered him toward Rep. Susan Humphries, a Wichita Republican who introduced the legislation.

Humphries, an attorney who works on adoption cases, said the legislation stemmed from conversations with an informal coalition that included Catholic Charities and other interested parties.

“Nobody has made any promises,” Humphries said when asked what faith-based providers might come to Kansas.

“Nobody has said anything for sure. It’s just a fact that faith-based agencies, if they’re thinking of expanding in any state, one factor that they’re going to look at is are we going to be able to operate according to our sincerely held religious beliefs.”

Witt said he has no problem with religious groups operating in the adoptions field. He said Section D of the bill, which guarantees these agencies a right to state contracts, is the problem.

“It gives them the right to (take) taxpayer money to discriminate against LGBT Kansans, and that is offensive beyond all description,” Witt said.

He confirmed his group, Equality Kansas, is making calls to encourage people to urge their lawmakers to vote against the bill.

Lawmakers who opposed the legislation also have been facing pressure for weeks from the bill's supporters.

“We heard the terminology that there’s a firestorm coming,” said Rep. Shelee Brim, a moderate Republican from Shawnee.

Rep. Joy Koesten, a moderate Republican from Leawood, said she has received phone calls from several Catholic priests in her district encouraging her to switch her vote on the bill.

She also has fielded calls from their parishioners, Koesten said.

“My job this past week was to try and educate my constituents about what the bill actually does,” she said.

Among the people lobbying lawmakers to pass the change is the eldest son of the Kansas City Chiefs’ founder.

Lamar Hunt Jr., the owner of the Kansas City Mavericks, last week emailed more than 20 Kansas City-area lawmakers, a mix of Democrats and moderate Republicans, asking them to support HB 2481.

“It is only natural and logical that Christian agencies would place children in homes with a married man and woman. … This in no way passes judgment on same-sex couples desiring to do the same. Tolerance is a two-way street and as believing Christians my wife and I expect you to fight for our right to follow our faith just as you would for someone who prefers another path in life,” Hunt said in the email to lawmakers.

Hunt, a Leawood resident who serves on the Chiefs’ advisory board, ends his email by noting that he is a member of the “Founding Family of the Kansas City Chiefs.”

His father, Lamar Hunt Sr., founded the team and is credited with naming the Super Bowl. His brother, Clark Hunt, took over as the team’s chairman in 2005.

Hunt Jr., who serves on the advisory board for the Catholic Radio Network, did not agree to an interview about his support for the bill.

Schuttloffel, the lobbyist, said he doesn’t know how Hunt became involved in the advocacy effort, but he said the Catholic Conference has been “reaching out to everyone under the sun to get them involved in this.”

Lori Ross, the CEO and president of FosterAdopt Connect, a group that does adoption work in both Kansas and Missouri, questioned the logic behind the bill.

“They’re solving a problem that doesn’t exist,” she said, noting that there are already several religious organizations in Kansas working in the adoption field.

“Currently families that are two-parent heterosexual Christian families can be licensed by any agency in the state of Kansas,” she added.

Ross said DCF’s argument that adding new agencies to the field would strengthen the system is flawed, particularly if those agencies would exclude same-sex couples.

She said the problem is not a lack of contractors.

“It’s a lack of families,” she said.