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President Trump backs faith-based agencies in new executive order on foster care

Religiously affiliated adoption agencies that won’t serve same-sex couples are at the center of several ongoing legal battles.

SHARE President Trump backs faith-based agencies in new executive order on foster care

President Donald Trump listens during a news conference with Polish President Andrzej Duda in the Rose Garden of the White House on Wednesday, June 24, 2020, in Washington. On Wednesday, Trump also signed an executive order calling on officials to seek out more partnerships with religiously affiliated foster care agencies.

Evan Vucci, Associated Press

SALT LAKE CITY — President Donald Trump is unhappy about America’s foster care system, and he thinks faith-based organizations have a role to play in making it better.

In an executive order released Wednesday, he calls on officials to seek out more partnerships with religiously affiliated agencies, claiming that a lack of such relationships helps explain why more than 400,000 children are currently awaiting new homes.

“State and local welfare agencies often do not have robust partnerships with private community organizations, including faith-based organizations,” Trump wrote.

Among other recommendations, the order instructs federal and state officials to look for new opportunities to work with nongovernmental community organizations, including those run by people of faith.

It also asks government leaders to issue new guidelines on public-private partnerships and affirm that religious agencies can’t be excluded because of their beliefs.

“This guidance should ... make clear that faith-based organizations are eligible for partnerships ... on an equal basis, consistent with the First Amendment to the Constitution,” the executive order said.

These instructions are more controversial than they may, at first, appear. In recent years, LGBTQ rights advocates have filed multiple lawsuits arguing that faith-based foster care agencies often cause more problems than they solve.

“Agencies providing child welfare services on behalf of the government must put the needs of children first. Turning away prospective foster families because of their sexual orientation, faith or any other reason, unrelated to the ability to support a child, limits the families available for children,” said Leslie Cooper, the deputy director of the ACLU’s LGBT and HIV Project, in a statement about the executive order.

The Trump administration has rejected this contention several times in the past, arguing that efforts to prevent religious organizations from participating in the public foster care system amount to unlawful religious discrimination.

Last year, federal officials stepped in to protect a faith-based agency in South Carolina that risked losing state funding due to its views on LGBTQ rights and religion.

“Faith-based organizations that provide foster care services not only perform a great service for their communities, they are exercising a legally protected right to practice their faith through good works,” reads a statement released at the time by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.

The ACLU and others interpret religious freedom law differently, arguing that government-funded discrimination is never OK. If Trump really wants to reduce the number of children in the foster care system, he should ensure agencies aren’t turning otherwise eligible parents away for being gay, Cooper said.

“While the Trump administration talks about the need for more foster parents, it is making (decisions) that could result in many prospective parents being turned away by agencies for reasons that have nothing to do with their ability to care for a child,” she said.

In February, the Supreme Court announced that it will soon weigh in on how to balance the rights of LGBTQ couples with the rights of faith-based agencies. The justices agreed to hear a case stemming from the city of Philadelphia’s decision to no longer partner with a Catholic agency unwilling to evaluate the adoption eligibility of LGBTQ couples.

The new executive order does not reference this upcoming legal battle, but it makes it clear how the president would prefer the case to turn out.