NASHVILLE — Tennessee lawmakers kicked off their annual session Tuesday on a controversial note, with senators giving final approval to a bill that allows faith-based adoption agencies to reject placing children with same-sex couples.
The measure, which cleared the Republican House last year, won approval in the GOP-controlled Senate on a 20-6 vote, sending it on to Gov. Bill Lee for his consideration.
Lee, a Republican, told reporters he wasn't commenting about the bill, which was supported by the Southern Baptist Convention's Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission. A Lee administration official later said the governor will sign the bill, noting several other states have enacted similar laws and the governor views it as additional protection for faith-based groups.
It came as members of the 111th General Assembly returned to the state Capitol to begin their 2020 session. They'll consider hundreds of bills — the list includes Lee's expected criminal justice reform initiative, abortion restrictions, tax cuts, the state's annual spending plan and more.
The House, meanwhile, is under new management this session, with Republican Cameron Sexton of Crossville as the chamber's speaker, replacing Glen Casada, R-Franklin, who was forced to resign last year amid multiple scandals.
Casada made a stir on opening day, telling reporters he is open to running for the vacant GOP Caucus' whip position.
On yet another front, a Republican lawmaker, Rep. David Byrd of Waynesboro, a retired teacher who has faced accusations of sexual improprieties by three now-adult women he once coached in high school, announced he won't seek re-election.
While House and Senate committees cranked up on opening day over pending bills left over from 2019, the only floor action came in the Senate with the controversial adoption bill sponsored by Sen. Paul Rose, R-Covington.
As approved, it says "to the extent allowed by federal law, no private licensed child-placing agency shall be required to perform, assist, counsel, recommend, consent to, refer, or participate in any placement of a child for foster care or adoption when the proposed placement would violate the agency's written religious or moral convictions or policies."
The bill has been condemned by the Tennessee Equality Project, which advocates for the LGBT community, as a being a part of a "slate of hate" package of measures pushed by socially conservative GOP lawmakers.
During Senate debate, Rose argued states such as California have enacted policies that prohibit adoption agencies from such refusals.
"Currently there have been states with agencies that have been forced to shut down," Rose said, later adding "this bill does not restrict any rights to place a child with a family, what I would consider a traditional family, mother and father."
Sen. Jeff Yarbro, D-Nashville, said while there is a "lot of talk about protecting private religious liberty of individuals and organizations," when those organizations are contracting with the state of Tennessee, when they are receiving dollars from public funds, they are no longer acting as private actors. They're acting as public actors."
Lt. Gov. Randy McNally, the Senate Republican speaker, left the chamber podium to make a rare foray into a debate. The bill was unnecessary, he said, and could actually pose future problems for proponents.
President Donald Trump "has stated he would not enforce President [Barack] Obama's mandate regarding religious organizations not being able to choose who they give children to and other things," McNally said. But he voiced concerns that Rose's measure could harm the state's existing Freedom of Religion Act.
"I would argue that it's best to leave alone what we have, because the protections already exist," said McNally, who also noted his concern is potential legal snarls that Rose's stand-alone bill may cause for other provisions of the state's Freedom of Religion Act.
Rose countered he has concerns that Republicans won't always be dominating the General Assembly.
McNally and four other senators, including Republican Todd Gardenhire of Chattanooga, simply voted present on passage.
Sens. Bo Watson, R-Hixson, and Mike Bell, R-Riceville, voted yes on the bill.
Bell suggested during the debate that same-sex couples will still have options, noting there is "nothing in the bill to force parents to go to a faith-based agency."
Sens. Yarbro and Steve Dickerson, R-Nashville, repeatedly raised concerns.
Yarbro warned a placement agency that doesn't wish to allow LGBT couples to adopt "could just choose to let that child remain in child care until the child is 18, even if they could find a couple who are a LGBT couple."
Contact Andy Sher at email@example.com or 615-255-0550. Follow him on Twitter @AndySher1.