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Virginia groups may sue over state adoption decision

By Matthew A. Ward

PORTSMOUTH, Va (Reuters) - Virginia groups opposed to discriminating against would-be adoptive and foster parents based on factors including sexuality and religion said on Thursday they may sue after a state board's decision.

New regulations -- approved 5-1 at a Virginia Board of Social Services meeting on Wednesday -- to take effect on May 1 will allow state-licensed adoption agencies to consider sexual orientation, age, disability, gender, family status and political beliefs when placing children.

American Civil Liberties Union of Virginia Legal Director Rebecca Glenberg branded the decision "terrible," adding litigation is "under consideration."

"It disserves children (by) allowing adoption agencies to exclude a wide range of potential adoptive parents," she said.

Glenberg says there is no evidence gays are less suitable parents than straight people, "nor is there any evidence for excluding any of these other groups from protection."

Claire Gastanaga, legislative counsel for Equality Virginia, said Virginia law allows both singles and married couples to adopt.

The board, she said, has permitted licensed agencies to tell prospective adoptive and foster parents, "we don't serve gay people, we don't serve people who are not (of) our religion, we don't serve people who are over a certain age, we don't serve people who have a disability."

With 1,200 children in Virginia awaiting adoption and 6,000 in foster care, the move is especially regrettable, she added.

The board in April had initially voted to overturn anti-discrimination protections instigated in 2009 by then governor Timothy Kaine, a Democrat. But at the request of gay-advocacy groups, a public comment period was extended. The Department of Social Services received nearly 3,000 comments, mostly supporting the protections.

However, Catholics and some other faiths and groups argued Kaine's rules would have trampled religious freedom and a birth mother's right to decide what kind of person adopts her child.

The Rutherford Institute, described on its website as a civil liberties organization, said in its submission: "It is absolutely beyond the legitimate authority of any government agency to force faith-based agencies to choose between abandoning their adoption ministries or violating their sincerely-held religious beliefs."

The Virginia Catholic Conference issued a statement hailing Wednesday's vote, saying faith-based agencies "have the right, under federal and state law, to make determinations according to their convictions and beliefs. The proper role of government is to respect and preserve this existing right."

Gastanaga indicated court action may form part of Equality Virginia's efforts to "educate people as to why this is not the right or moral thing for the state to be a party to."

Not all faith-based adoption agencies operating in Virginia discriminate against those who do not subscribe to their views.

United Methodist Family Services will "continue to serve a wide range of prospective adoptive parents and do not intend to discriminate as allowed by the new regulations," CEO Greg Peters told Reuters in a statement on Thursday.

Virginia New Majority Executive Director Jon Liss said the new regulations would keep Virginia "in the past. It's really imposing some people's standards of what's appropriate sexuality on the whole society."

He said the group would "quite likely" join any coordinated legal action.

(Editing by Jerry Norton)

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