Testimony on SB 2188 - Adoption Agency Freedom to Serve (House)

To: House Human Services Committee
From: Christopher Dodson, Executive Director
Subject: Senate Bill 2188 -- Child Placing Agencies
Date: March 3, 2003


I am Christopher Dodson, the executive director of the North Dakota Catholic Conference. The conference urges a Do Pass recommendation for Senate Bill 2188.

Senate Bill 2188 protects a child-placing agency’s freedom to provide adoption services. State policy allows private entities to provide adoption services as “child-placing agencies.” Chapter 50-12 of the North Dakota Century Code sets out the requirements for child-placing agencies and an agency cannot provide adoption services unless it meets these requirements and is licensed by the Department of Human Services.

Six agencies currently provide licensed adoption services in North Dakota. Four of these agencies are, or are affiliated with, religious entities. As religious entities, they incorporate and reflect their church’s teachings and values. By doing so, the services become an integral part of their church’s ministry.

This partnership between the state and religiously affiliated agencies, and the accompanying respect for religious liberty, has served the people of North Dakota well. Rather than restricting the number of child-placing agencies and, in turn, access to adoption services, it has fostered pluralism and allowed for participation by a greater number of providers.

In recent years, some adoption agencies -- locally and nationally -- have witnessed pressure to provide adoption services that would violate their religious or moral policies. Sometimes this pressure is subtle. Sometimes it is direct. Sometimes it is based on social trends. Sometimes it is based on interpretations of law or professional “best practice” standards. Senate Bill 2188 addresses these challenges by protecting an agency’s freedom to serve.

Senate Bill 2188 is designed to only preserve religious liberty. It does not affect who can adopt or restrict access to adoption services. Some have claimed that this bill changes the law by giving agencies a right to not participate in an adoption. This claim assumes that agencies do not currently have such a right. Under this assumption, any agency licensed by the state must serve any person that knocks on its door. We do not believe this is the law, but the very assertion of such an argument demonstrates why the time has come to clarify an agency’s right to serve in a manner consistent with its religious and moral positions.

Following existing conscience protection statutes in North Dakota and the law of other states, Senate Bill 2188 addresses protection of conscience with respect to: (1) licensing [page 1, lines 15 -18], (2) general policies [page 1, lines 22 - 24], (3) government programs [page 1, line 24 - page 2, lines 1-4] and (4) civil and criminal actions [page 2, lines 4 - 6].

In each of these cases, the protection extends to an agency’s objection to “performing, assisting, counseling, recommending, facilitating, referring, or participating” in an adoption that violates their religious policies. This phrase was used because it closely parallels other anti-discrimination language in the Century Code. In each case, the objection must be based on the agency’s “religious or moral convictions or policies.” This phrase also parallels existing code language, with a revision to reflect that individual persons, in addition to entities, can act as child-placing agencies in the state.

As mentioned, the only purpose of this bill is to protect an agency’s freedom to serve. It is not intended to impact adoption law or access to adoption services. To make this clear, the last lines of the bill (page 2, lines 6 - 9) provide that if a child-placing agency opts not to participate in an adoption that violates its religious convictions, the action of the agency is not a finding concerning the best interests of the child. In short, opting not to participate is merely that -- opting not to participate. The decision does not follow the prospective parent and he or she is free to use the services of another agency.

North Dakota has chosen to foster a plurality of adoption service providers rather than insisting a uniform “one size fits all” approach. This approach has provided choices to North Dakotans and a means for agencies to exercise their public ministries. If this policy is to continue, we must protect the religious liberties of child-placing agencies. No person or agency should ever be asked to forfeit their religious or moral beliefs as the price to pay for exercising a religious mission and providing a community service.

We urge a Do Pass recommendation on Senate Bill 2188. I would be happy to answer any questions the committee may have.