Do the media have a 'conscience?' Not when it comes to foster care and religious liberty in Texas

My parents, Bob and Judy Ross, served for 25 years as houseparents at Christ's Haven for Children, a Christian child-care ministry based in Keller, Texas.

Mom and Dad lost count of the exact number of children for whom they cared. Some came into their home and stayed just a few days. Others they raised from preschool through high school graduation. In all, more than 250 girls lived in my parents’ cottage.

My mother said she and Dad always wanted a mission to lead people to Jesus Christ. At Christ’s Haven, they found it. They studied the Bible with all the girls in their care, and Dad baptized many of them, as I noted in a Christian Chronicle column in 2007.

I couldn't help but recall my parents' experience as I read a Texas Tribune story this week proclaiming that "Texas' next religious liberty fight could be over foster care":

You can’t talk about religious liberty in Texas without mentioning Lester Roloff.
In the 1970s, Roloff, a Baptist preacher, was known for his homes for teenagers in Corpus Christi. A 1973 legislative report on child care in the state said members heard testimony from children previously in Roloff's Rebekah Home for Girls about irregular meals and whippings. Roloff told lawmakers his homes should be exempted from state interference due to his religious roots.
“We spanked them because God loves them, and we love them,” Roloff told the committee.
Those hearings led to the Legislature passing Senate Bill 965 in 1975, which established child care licensing laws in the state.
Now, 42 years later, Texas legislators are considering sharpening religious protections for faith-based groups the state hires to place children in foster and adoptive homes and oversee their care. Critics say this could give religious groups license to use their faith as a reason to refuse to place foster children with gay couples or with families with certain religious beliefs. Legislators say this could halt bipartisan warmth on bills changing how Texas cares for abused and neglected children.

In the lede, the Texas Tribune sets a negative tone on the legislation right away — and that critical theme dominates the story. Besides the bill's author, the "nonpartisan media organization" quotes six sources. Five of them voice concerns about the bill. You get the (not-so-balanced) picture.

The bill itself (read the full text here) addresses "the conscience rights of certain religious organizations and individuals." However, guess what word never appears in the Tribune story? If you said "conscience," you win the prize.

This, too, is a topic we've addressed repeatedly:

By the time U.S. Supreme Court issued its landmark decision legalizing same-sex marriage ... conscience claims by religious people who view marriage as a sacred union between one man and one woman already were making frequent national headlines.
Of course, in most media reports on those claims — before and after the high court's 5-4 ruling — the word "conscience" never appeared. Rather, news organizations such as the Los Angeles Times framed the issue as a matter of Christians wanting to "deny service" or "refuse service." Often, news stories on the subject carried scare quotes around terms such as "religious liberty" and "religious freedom" — a journalistic eyebrow raising, if you will.

Give the Texas Tribune credit for not using scare quotes around religious liberty.

However, the outlet does feel compelled to set aside "sincerely held religious beliefs," as you'll notice as the story continues:

Rep. James Frank, R-Wichita Falls, vice chairman of the House Human Services Committee, has authored House Bill 3859, which would protect faith-based providers from retaliation if they assert their “sincerely held religious beliefs” while caring for abused and neglected children.
The bill would include allowing faith-based groups to deny a placement if it’s against their religious beliefs; place a child in a religion-based school; deny referrals for abortion-related contraceptives, drugs or devices; and refuse to contract with other organizations that go against their religious beliefs.
Frank said the his bill is meant to give “reasonable accommodations” for faith-based groups and not meant to be exclusionary. He said the ultimate goal is to help find the right home for kids.
Faith-based organizations are closing their doors to foster children “because they can’t afford to stay in business when they’re getting sued on stuff,” Frank said. “They’re basically being told to conform or get out on stuff that’s important but it’s not core to taking care of foster homes.”

The Tribune casts the issue as relating to "faith-based groups the state hires to place children in foster homes." The bill refers to providers operating "under governmental authority to refer or place children."

I wonder after reading both the story and the legislation: Does this bill concern only faith-based groups that receive state contracts? Or does it extend to the operations of privately funded religious groups seeking state licensing? The distinction would appear to be important, but I'll acknowledge my ignorance when it comes to the intricacies of how the system works in Texas.

In a Christianity Today story way back in 2011, I noted:

Just a few years ago, a key question in the public square was: Would gay and unmarried couples be allowed to adopt children or serve as foster parents?
Now, the question seems to be: Can faith-based agencies with conscientious objections refuse to place children with gay and unmarried couples?
"It's a question of: Can religious organizations continue to operate for the public good in a way that's consistent with their convictions?" said Jedd Medefind, president of the Christian Alliance for Orphans.

I'd love to see the Texas Tribune — and other major news organizations in the Lone Star State — delve deeper and provide a fuller, fairer portrait of faith-based foster care and adoption providers and the issues at stake.

 

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