After nearly two hours of debate, a Senate committee Monday voted to table a controversial House bill that would allow private adoption agencies to refuse to place children with same-sex couples.
The decision by the Senate Rules Committee came with less than two weeks left in the regular legislative session and created uncertainty about the fate of the measure (HB 7111), which supporters describe as a "conscience protection" bill. It's primarily designed for adoption agencies with religious affiliations whose beliefs prevent them from placing children with gay and lesbian prospective parents.
Committee Chairman David Simmons (R-Altamonte Springs) said the bill was tabled because the panel simply ran out of time and that he would speak to Senate President Andy Gardiner (R-Orlando) about what to do next.
"I tried to warn everyone that we had time limitations, but people came from all over the state (to speak)," Simmons said. "It's not been before the Senate before, so therefore it's important that everyone have the opportunity to say his or her viewpoints on this issue… I think there were important new points that were brought out."
Those viewpoints ranged from religious charities to advocacy groups to the adopted children of same-sex couples — and both sides warned that lawsuits would be forthcoming.
"We could be in litigation this summer," said Bill Bunkley, a bill supporter who is president of the Florida Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission.
"If this bill does not pass, within one year, it's guaranteed there will be lawsuits based upon equal protection, based upon local non-discrimination ordinances," said John Stemberger, president of the Florida Family Policy Council. "Baptists, Catholics, and other faith-based agencies will be sued claiming that they're discriminating, just for having a preference to place a child with a married mother and father."
But Maria Bates, an adoption attorney, said the bill was "over-reaching" and could threaten federal child-welfare funding for the state.
Meanwhile, Norberto Katz, representing the Family Law Section of the Florida Bar — which opposes the bill — said, "We believe it violates the equal-protection clauses of both the state and federal constitutions."
The measure was sparked by another bill (HB 7013), which would restore an adoption-subsidies program eliminated in 2009 during the recession. That bill, which was never expected to be controversial, would provide $5,000 payments to government workers who adopt foster children, with the payments increasing to $10,000 for the adoption of children with special needs.
But when the House passed the subsidies bill last month, it also voted to repeal a 38-year-old law that banned gay adoption. The ban essentially ended in 2010, when an appeals court ruled against it, but it remains in law. The Senate passed the subsidies bill last week, with the repeal provision intact, sending the measure to Gov. Rick Scott.
The repeal provision sparked a backlash from some religious groups who contended that "conscience protection" is necessary to keep groups like Catholic Charities and the Florida Baptist Children's Home from halting adoptions rather than placing children with gay and lesbian prospective parents — or from having to fight the measure in court.
"We need this money going to children and not to attorneys," said Jerry Haig of the Florida Baptist Children's Home.
Critics contended the bill would lead to discrimination, and senators closely questioned the speakers about that issue. For instance, Sen. Jack Latvala (R-Clearwater) repeatedly asked representatives of private adoption agencies and their allies whether there had been any repercussions since the appeals court in 2010 struck down the law banning gay adoption in Florida.
"Do you adopt out to single parents?" Latvala asked Michael Sheedy of the Florida Conference of Catholic Bishops.
Sheedy replied that one of the conference's adoption agencies does place children with single parents, while the other does not.
As the debate continued to rage and the committee reached its time to adjourn, Sen. Darren Soto (D-Orlando) proposed a procedural move to effectively table the measure. His colleagues agreed.
Afterward, Simmons said it would be "premature" to declare the bill dead. He also said it was unlikely that the bill would be withdrawn from the Rules Committee and placed before the full Senate.
"We're not going to deal with it that way," he said. "We have a process here in the Senate. We're going to give everyone an opportunity (to weigh in)."