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Gov. Bill Lee signs bill allowing agencies to deny adoptions on moral grounds

The bill would allow agencies to deny same-sex couples wanting to adopt.

NASHVILLE, Tenn. — On the first day of the 2020 session, Tennessee state senators voted 20 to 6 to pass a bill that would allow private agencies to deny adoptions on moral and religious grounds, including denying same-sex couples.

Gov. Bill Lee signed House Bill 0836 into law on Friday.  It provides protection for privately licensed adoption agencies with "written religious or moral convictions" wishing to deny adoptions on those grounds.

The bill had carried over from the previous legislative session after passing the Tennessee House in 2019. 

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Here's what the bill outlines:

1. No one can legally require private agencies to participate in child placement for foster care or adoption if it violates the agency's written religious or moral convictions.

2. The Department of Children's Services cannot deny applications or renewals for an agency's adoption license because of the agency's moral objections to the placement of a child. (*Lawmakers acknowledged in an amendment that this part of the bill has no power to affect the actual policies or procedures of the Department of Children's Services.)

3. Tennessee's state and local governments cannot deny grants, contracts, or participation in a government program to any private licensed agency because of that agency's moral convictions.

4. Entities cannot sue private licensed child placement agencies for damages or civil relief because that agency refused services to someone on moral grounds.

The law could still be challenged in court, but some legal experts have said in the past there is a good chance a judge or justices will uphold it.

"The reason it will probably pass muster is that the court has shown a great deal of willingness to protect religious freedom in the recent past, even perhaps to the exclusion of equality," said Stewart Harris, a professor of law for Lincoln Memorial University. "So that's the essential conflict here, isn't it? Some people say, 'this is our religious right.' Other people say, 'no, you're impacting negatively my ability to be an equal citizen.'"

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Senator Frank Niceley (R-Strawberry Plains) voted in favor of the bill.

Senators Richard Briggs (R-Knoxville), Lt. Gov. Randy McNally (R-Oak Ridge), and Sen. Becky Duncan Massey (R-Knoxville) did not vote aye or nay, but voted present.

You can read the full text of the bill below: