Scott faces political pressure on adoption bill
TALLAHASSEE, Fla. – A controversial adoption bill will offer Gov. Rick Scott potential political problems when it lands on his desk in the not-too-distant future.
"A very good adoption bill that got complicated by a social issue," is how Rep. Dennis Baxley, R-Ocala and former executive director of the Christian Coalition of Florida, described the measure (HB 7013).
But because the social issue is gay adoption, Baxley and other social conservatives believe Scott should veto the bill -- although reluctantly, because the measure also would provide $5,000 payments to government workers who adopt foster children, with the payments increasing to $10,000 for adopting children with special needs.
"Our position is that the current bill … directly endangers faith-based adoption agencies in Florida," said John Stemberger, president of the Florida Family Policy Council. "And by signing it, (Scott) will put them squarely in the sights of our opponents -- who really want to see them shut down, frankly."
The legislation didn't start out as a complicated choice. In fact, the idea of giving subsidies to government workers who adopt children in the state foster-care system was part of the "Work Plan 2015," jointly endorsed by Senate President Andy Gardiner and House Speaker Steve Crisafulli in January. Moreover, the legislation was first filed by Sen. Don Gaetz, a Niceville Republican and former Senate president, at roughly the same time.
But on March 11, when the House approved the subsidies, it also voted to repeal a 38-year-old law that banned gay adoption -- setting off a firestorm among social conservatives like Stemberger and Sen. Alan Hays, R-Umatilla, who called the provision a "poison pill."
For practical purposes, the gay-adoption ban ended in 2010, when an appeals court ruled against it. Rep. David Richardson, a Miami Beach Democrat who is gay, said the House amendment was "simply a repeal of an outdated statute."
"Other than removing language that is offensive to the gay community, it really is going to have no practical impact on what's going on in the state of Florida in terms of adoptions," Richardson said Thursday.
But the backlash was so fiery that within weeks, the House had passed another measure (HB 7111) affording what it called "conscience protection" to private adoption agencies whose religious or moral convictions prevent them from placing children with gay parents. That bill, which died in the Senate, would have protected the agencies from losing their licenses or state funding if they refused to facilitate adoptions on religious or moral grounds.
Backers of the measure contended that "conscience protection" was needed 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.
Caught in the crossfire was Baxley, who'd voted for the subsidies bill and then changed his vote. He voted for the "conscience protection" bill as well.
"I empathize with (Scott) on being in a tough situation of trying (to decide) how to weigh these two issues (the subsidies and repealing the gay-marriage ban) that have now been wound together," Baxley said, adding that since gay adoption has not been decided by the Florida Supreme Court, the issues are far from done deals.
"And in my view, if we haven't reached a better consensus, maybe the best thing to do is say, 'It's not ripe yet,' '' he said.
Additionally, Stemberger --- who calls the issue the most important of his 30 years in state politics --- said gay Floridians would lose no standing if Scott vetoes the subsidies measure.
"They get nothing and lose nothing," he said. "They're able to adopt and do foster care. This is really about whether the governor is going to allow protection for faith-based adoption agencies."
Nonetheless, the Senate passed the subsidies bill on April 14 with the repeal provision intact.
Gaetz, who calls his Panhandle district arguably the most conservative in the state, led the opposition in his chamber to an attempt to amend the bill to take out the repeal of the gay-marriage ban.
"I'm not worried about the political consequences," Gaetz said Thursday. "I'm worried about the moral consequences if we don't do as much as we can to make sure that these children have loving, permanent homes."
A spokeswoman for Scott said the governor would review the subsidies bill when it reaches his desk. Gaetz said he had not heard from Scott about the bill.
"But I would expect that the governor would weigh the issues here the same as the Legislature did -- that is, that we have 852 adoptable foster-care children, most of them special-needs children, who by this legislation will have a far better chance to have loving, permanent homes," he said.
Gaetz and other supporters of the bill say it's needed for the most hard-to-place children in the foster-care system.
Michael Sheedy, executive director of the Florida Conference of Catholic Bishops, said Thursday that his group -- which had supported the "conscience protection" language -- would announce its position on the subsidies bill soon.
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