TALLAHASSEE — Activists on both sides of the LGBT rights debate could claim partial victory Wednesday afternoon as the House and Senate diverged on adoption rights for gay parents.
House Democrats were unable to gut a bill that would allow adoption agencies to discriminate against LGBT parents based on agencies' religious beliefs. Just an hour later, the Senate upheld language that strikes down an existing ban on gay people adopting children.
The question of adoption rights for gay and lesbian Floridians has moved into the limelight this week, a month after the House removed a ban on gay people adopting children.
Lobbyist Carlos Smith of Equality Florida described Wednesday as "the most important 24 hours of the session," for the LGBT rights group. John Stemberger of the Florida Family Policy Council issued an open letter, pressing that "adoption agencies could still be subject to legal attack."
For 33 years, state law has banned anyone from adopting a child, "if that person is a homosexual," until a 2010 decision by the 3rd District Court of Appeal overturned it. That move made the House's early March vote largely symbolic, but social conservatives in both chambers rose up in opposition.
In the House, the response took the form of HB 7111, which lawmakers will likely vote on today. It allows adoption and foster care agencies to deny service based on a deeply held religious conviction.
Supporters and critics agree its effect will be allowing agencies — some of which receive state funding — to choose not to work with gay couples who want to adopt.
Opponents have called it discriminatory. But state Rep. Jason Brodeur, R-Sanford, the bill's sponsor, said it is necessary to protect agencies with firm religious foundations.
"We've seen that in other states, these agencies are being shut down," Brodeur said. "I don't believe that the state should be able to discriminate against these organizations based on their religious beliefs."
House Democrats brought 17 amendments to the floor, most of which specifically banned discrimination based on a long list of factors, including sexual orientation, race, status as a veteran and gender.
Describing his proposed amendment to Brodeur, state Rep. David Richardson, D-Miami Beach, said: "It completely negates your bill that allows discrimination in the state of Florida using public funds."
Brodeur's response was to file repeated counter-amendments saying a refusal of service under his bill doesn't constitute discrimination, saying each time, "This amendment reaffirms our religious freedoms."
Each time during the three-hour process, the Democrats were shot down.
Senate members, meanwhile, stood by the House's March vote striking the legal ban on gay Floridians adopting.
An amendment by state Sen. Kelli Stargel, R-Lakeland, tried to reinsert the ban as part of state law.
"If we strike that out of the law," she said, "there's nothing for (a statewide court) to rule on as being constitutional or unconstitutional because we've taken it out."
But her fellow Senate members voted against the language, saying in debate that it was an out-of-date policy that could kill the larger adoption bill, which provides incentives for government employees to adopt children, especially those with special needs. Since few judges nationwide have ruled against same-sex couples adopting or marrying, they also said it wasn't practical.
"This is a 'what-if' that falls into the realm of hopeful fantasy," said Don Gaetz, R-Niceville, the bill's sponsor. "I think that's a weak predicate for passing this amendment, which would kill this bill."
Times/Herald staff writer Kathleen McGrory contributed to this report. Contact Michael Auslen at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow @MichaelAuslen.