David Pippen says he’s always known he wanted kids, but the timing was never quite right until now.
“I look back on my life and I always think, ‘God, I’m so freaking fortunate,’” Pippen says. “I am so lucky to do what I do, and we have so much to give.”
The “we” Pippen is talking about is he and his husband, Brad Resler.
The Atlanta couple have been together for 18 years and legally married for the past three.
Pippen says he and Resler have talked for a while about starting out as foster parents as a step toward adoption. So when Pippen heard the state was facing a foster crisis, he called a private, faith-based agency that he’d recently heard about.
“I said, ‘Do you work with same-sex couples?’ And he said, ‘No.’ I said, ‘Could you give me a reason why you’re not working with same-sex couples because we’re recognized as a legally married couple?’ He said, ‘We just don’t.’ And that was it,” says Pippen of his conversation.
The Georgia native, who says he volunteers with Big Brothers Big Sisters and another organization that takes in homeless LGBT youths, was devastated.
He called Resler.
“I was like, I don’t know what to do here right now. I’m so mad here right now. And I don’t, you know, I haven’t experienced, what word am I looking for?”
Resler finishes his husband’s sentence: “Discrimination?”
“Discrimination,” Pippen says in agreement.
While the U.S. Supreme Court has weighed in on the legality of same-sex marriage, 10 months later, states like Georgia are still figuring how to interpret that ruling.
One of the lingering questions is whether the court’s decision extends to state-run services like foster care and adoptions, especially for agencies that receive funding through government contracts.
There are about 100 organizations that have contracts with Georgia to coordinate foster care and adoptions, according to a state database. These groups, many of which are faith-based, place about half of all the kids that come into state custody. In return, they receive taxpayer dollars for every placement they make.
That work is of particular importance at the moment. Georgia officials say the state is in the midst of a foster care crisis with around 12,000 children in care. Despite that, some faith-based organizations that get millions from the state to find foster families won’t work with same-sex couples.
“When a private organization that is receiving state money is dealing with a married, same-sex couple, they cannot treat that couple differently,” says Beth Littrell, an Atlanta attorney with Lambda Legal, a group that focuses on lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender issues.
Still, Georgia agencies that refuse to work with same-sex couples aren’t violating any state law or policy. Their state contracts include a clause that says they agree not to discriminate against any person on a number of factors, including sexual orientation, but it only applies to children in care, not prospective foster or adoptive parents.
To Littrell, those policies shouldn’t hold up to a legal challenge anymore because of the Supreme Court’s decision.
“Those justifications to discriminate against same-sex couples have gone away,” Littrell says.
According to records obtained from the Georgia Division of Family and Children Services, which oversees the state’s child welfare system, 24 agencies received more than $1 million in state funding last year to coordinate foster care.
At least six of them were faith-based.
WABE reached out to all of those providers.
Lutheran Christian Services, which records show received $3.9 million from the state, said they’ll work with anyone.
FaithBridge Foster Care, which received just under $2.8 million, did not return calls and emails for comment. On its website, the agency has a “morality position” that says, “We believe that the term ‘marriage’ has only one meaning and that marriage is sanctioned by God which joins one man and one woman in a single, exclusive union. We believe that any form of sexual immorality is wrong.”
Three other groups — Bethany Christian Services ($2.5 million), United Methodist Children’s Home ($1.2 million) and Uniting Hope 4 Children ($1 million) — issued statements saying while they don’t work with gay couples, they are happy to refer them to other agencies that will.
The top faith-based recipient of state dollars was Benchmark Family Services, which got $7.9 million, according to state records. Benchmark did not return requests for comment. While the agency identifies itself as “faith-based” on its Facebook page, its policies on working with same-sex couples were not publicly stated.
“I don’t think that it’s every week that we get a call from a family getting the runaround,” says Chena Blanchard, the adoption program manager for Families First, an agency that does work with same-sex couples. “Probably one or two a month, I would say.”
The State’s Role
The Division of Family and Children Services declined an interview for this story.
DFCS has said repeatedly it will work with LGBT couples, but the agency isn’t pushing that policy on private groups.
Sources inside DFCS say the agency needs foster families so badly that it can’t afford to alienate faith-based organizations.
A few years ago in Illinois, several Catholic Charities groups ended foster and adoption services after the state required them to work with same-sex couples.
Georgia state Sen. Greg Kirk (R-Americus) sponsored a bill this year that would have protected faith-based groups like these foster agencies from having to work with same-sex couples.
“A lot of business are started out of a passion, and why would we not want to protect their deeply held religious beliefs in their pursuit of their passion and their business,” Kirk says.
His bill, which was wrapped into a larger religious exemptions bill, passed the Legislature. In the final version of that bill, lawmakers included a clause that said religious exemptions would not supersede state contracts. Gov. Nathan Deal, however, ultimately vetoed it.
That fight in Georgia isn’t over, though, as the state continues to grapple with the reality of same-sex marriage.
Lawmakers say they’ll bring the effort for religious exemptions back up next year.