Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

Tennessee's New Adoption Law May Have Unintended Consequences


There are 11 states now that let adoption agencies refuse to work with same-sex couples - Tennessee is the latest. People who support these laws say they let agencies act in accordance with their religious beliefs, but people who don't warn about unintended consequences. Sergio Martínez-Beltrán of member station WPLN has the story.

SERGIO MARTÍNEZ-BELTRÁN, BYLINE: Becci Cantrell is about to give her daughter some blueberries to snack on.

BECCI CANTRELL: OK, which placemat do you want?


CANTRELL: That one?

MARTÍNEZ-BELTRÁN: Her favorite movie is "Frozen," so...

CANTRELL: Why do you want that one?

UNIDENTIFIED CHILD: Because - this one.

CANTRELL: Who's on it?


MARTÍNEZ-BELTRÁN: Her parents adopted her in Alabama in 2017. That's because her mothers, Becci and Paige Cantrell, were denied services through a faith-based adoption agency. Becci says they researched agencies in Tennessee, and they tried one affiliated to the Methodist church, their own denomination. Turns out the agency didn't place children with same-sex couples.

CANTRELL: I think the hardest part was that they're affiliated with our church. And our tithes help pay for their ministry, but they were not willing to work with our family.

MARTÍNEZ-BELTRÁN: Soon after taking office, the Trump administration decided not to enforce Obama-era LGBTQ protections that would have prevented the adoption agency from such a move. But a new law in Tennessee makes it explicit. It allows faith-based adoption agencies to use their religious beliefs as basis to refuse to work with families. It will also shield them from lawsuits. Republican State Senator Paul Rose wrote the law.


PAUL ROSE: It does not discriminate against anyone. If you want to place a child with an the LGBTQ couple, you can do that. But you cannot force an agency to do so.

MARTÍNEZ-BELTRÁN: Rose says this law is meant to be pre-emptive in case future Democratic presidents will try to reinstate the LGBTQ protections. Ten other states have passed similar measures. The Virginia-based Congressional Prayer Caucus Foundation has pushed for it and even wrote model legislation. Their goal - protect religious freedom. And that's something that Greg McCoy, the president of Tennessee Baptist Children's Homes, likes. McCoy's agency provides foster care and facilitates adoptions. He says they operate based on what the Bible says.

GREG MCCOY: Let's say an atheist wanted to be on our foster care team. Well, we're not going to allow that because he doesn't share our view on who Jesus is.

MARTÍNEZ-BELTRÁN: McCoy says that his organization would rather shut down than work with someone who doesn't share their Christian values. And he says that if a same-sex couple wants to adopt, they can go through the state or a non-religious organization.

MCCOY: There's still plenty other avenues to be involved in foster care. And if you want to be involved in foster care, you can be.

MARTÍNEZ-BELTRÁN: But there are potential side effects of the law, says Robin Fretwell Wilson, a law professor at the University of Illinois. Because of how it's written, she says it could open the door to discrimination against religion itself.

ROBIN FRETWELL WILSON: That may be very sobering to some of those folks who really prize religious freedom because their religion may not be what that particular provider is interested in.

MARTÍNEZ-BELTRÁN: So for example, a Catholic agency could refuse to facilitate an adoption for a Jewish couple. And Wilson predicts that possibility will cause friction between religious groups down the road.

For NPR News, I'm Sergio Martínez-Beltrán in Nashville.

(SOUNDBITE OF BALMORHEA'S "BEHIND THE WORLD") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Sergio Martínez-Beltrán is Nashville Public Radio’s political reporter. Prior to moving to Nashville, Sergio covered education for the Standard-Examiner newspaper in Ogden, Utah. He is a Puerto Rico native and his work has also appeared on NPR station WKAR, San Antonio Express-News, Inter News Service, GFR Media and WMIZ 1270 AM.