In early April, the American Enterprise Institute released a short paper titled, “Why Foster Children Are Sleeping in Offices and What We Can Do About It.” The scholars and policy experts described the acute needs facing America’s foster children and suggested a series of systemic reforms.
Care for the “orphan and widow” has long been a central theme within the Christian tradition, rooted in Scripture itself. Christians have reliably and creatively exercised this compassion throughout history—ever since they rescued Roman-abandoned infants from the chilly countryside. Today, American Christians open their hearts and homes to troubled teens and children unable to reunite with their birth parents and otherwise left to languish in psychiatric hospitals or sleep in agency offices.
But in an ugly twist of events, some state agencies are deliberately disqualifying Christians from offering the help and love they are called to provide.
For years, especially progressive cities and states have used their sexual orientation and gender identity policies to ban Christian foster care and adoption agencies like Catholic Social Services seeking to help kids. This project has faltered at the Supreme Court. In Fulton v. City of Philadelphia, the high court unanimously ruled that city officials could not exclude the Catholic agency simply because the city disagreed with the agency’s sincere religious beliefs about marriage.
Just last month, Alliance Defending Freedom successfully settled a case against the state of New York. Its Office of Children and Family Services had attempted—for four years—to shut down New Hope Family Services, a Syracuse-based Christian adoption agency, because of its longstanding policy—guided by its religious beliefs—of placing the children it serves in homes with a married mother and father. The saga continues, however, as New Hope litigates another lawsuit against a different state agency targeting the Christian nonprofit for the same policy.
But states aren’t simply cracking down on Christian nonprofits. In an effort that’s more difficult to trace—and potentially more frequent—state agencies are discriminating against individual Christians and denying their efforts to foster or adopt needy children. Lawsuits are already percolating in places like New Jersey. Washington state recently settled a lawsuit brought by a Christian couple, agreeing to stop discriminating against religious persons in child welfare programs.
One story from Oregon especially stands out to me: Jessica Bates is a single mom to five children—aged 10-17. A car accident tragically killed her husband in 2017, but—with the help of her family, friends, and church community—Jessica has enjoyed profound support and testifies that her faith has anchored her through the grieving process.
This same Christian faith motivated Jessica to pursue domestic adoption. She sought to adopt a sibling pair under nine years old. She completed the forms, orientation videos, and 27 hours of class training designed to help prepare parents for receiving and caring for children. But, as Jessica completed the training, one theme stood out, and she thought it could pose a problem for her faith.
Her instructor had explained that foster parents “must respect, accept, and support” a child’s sexual orientation, gender identity, or gender expression. In a variety of handouts and class examples, the department made it clear that caregivers must agree to use a child’s stated pronouns, display signs indicating an LGBT-affirming environment (pink triangle, rainbow, or ally flag), and be prepared to take a child to Pride parades.
Jessica explained that she could not affirm a young child’s gender dysphoria. “I think we should let them keep their innocence,” she wrote. “I have no problem loving them and accepting them as they are, but I would not encourage them in this behavior.”
When the department asked if she would take a hypothetical child to receive hormone shots—intended to facilitate a gender transition—Jessica responded that she would not. She considered such pharmaceutical interventions (especially for a child under nine years old) to be child abuse. The department official responded that her position did not comply with state regulations. Jessica’s application to foster and adopt was denied.
Jessica was dumbfounded. She’d satisfactorily met all the standards for adoptive homes up until this point. She was simply unwilling to agree to affirm a hypothetical infant’s or young child’s “transgender identity.”
Oregon’s officials are supposed to have children’s best interests in mind. Instead, the state seems concerned with enforcing its political preferences through an ideological litmus test. Oregon’s one-size-fits-all policy ignores the needs of Oregon’s children, tramples on constitutional rights, and amounts to an ugly case of state-sponsored discrimination against Christians and other faith groups.
But, what’s worse, the Oregon’s department’s policy hurts all children. Last year alone nearly 8,000 children touched the state’s foster care system. Hundreds of them are waiting for their forever homes. Many of them may even share Jessica’s Christian beliefs. But Oregon refuses to let her even be considered for adopting these children because officials think her religious beliefs make her unfit to be a parent. That’s why Jessica has chosen to sue the state.
Not every Christian is called, like Jessica is, to foster, or adopt, or sue. But we all are called to reflect on the God who created male and female in His image—the same God whose heart breaks for the orphan and widow. And with thousands of children in need—as emphasized by National Foster Care Month just around the corner—now is as good a time as any to note, with joy, that Christians in general have long answered this need, to the benefit of all. We’re not about to stop now just because the state thinks it can get along without us.