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Lawmakers resist attempts to change adoption rights law

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Eager to avoid a debate on same-sex adoption rights in an election year, Republican legislators  have refused to bring bills up for votes and stymied amendments that Democrats argue would undo an outdated law giving adoption rights exclusively to heterosexual married couples.

Democratic lawmakers have offered bills and amendments that would change language in state law from granting joint adoption rights to a “husband and wife” to a “married couple.’’

Their efforts have also sought to clarify that same-sex married couples enjoy the same preference for adoption over single parents now afforded to heterosexual couples. Other attempts have sought to eliminate the preference altogether.

Joint adoptions provide legal protections not afforded to same-sex couples forced into situations where only one parent is the adoptive mother or father.

A spokesman for Gov. Doug Ducey has argued those bills aren’t needed to grant joint adoption rights to same-sex couples because the U.S. Supreme Court ruling legalizing same-sex marriage in 2015 makes the statute specifying that only a husband and wife may adopt unenforceable.

Yet many Republican legislators are at odds with the governor’s interpretation of the ruling, as is the Center for Arizona Policy, the influential Christian lobbying group and supporter of the governor that authored the constitutional change Arizona voters approved in 2008 banning same-sex marriage in Arizona.

Cathi Herrod, the organization’s president, has said the court’s decision doesn’t extend to adoption laws, and applies only to marriages, a sentiment echoed by many Arizona legislators.

And lawmakers such as Sen. Nancy Barto, who’s sponsored changes to adoption laws that are now in a holding pattern to avoid debates on Democrat’s amendments, have also argued the preference for heterosexual couples is still necessary. They cite research claiming children raised by a husband and wife are better off than children raised by a same-sex couple.

While the governor calls the law unenforceable, state law still gives adoption rights to heterosexual couples, said Barto, R-Phoenix.

“The policy is what it is,” Barto said. “And until we see evidence that same-sex couples have the same impact on a child that’s being adopted as the social science research currently says about a married husband and wife, I don’t see the research foundation upon which to make that change.”

Sparking a bitter debate

Rep. Rebecca Rios has sought an amendment to SB1102 to ensure the rights of same-sex couples to jointly adopt children in Arizona. After failing to get the amendment adopted during a committee hearing on March 14 – when her amendment sparked a bitter debate on the House Children and Family Affairs Committee – the Phoenix Democrat has waited for her second opportunity, a vote on the House floor.

But GOP leaders in the House have blocked SB1102 from a floor vote, with the blessing of the bill’s sponsor, Barto, to avoid debate on Rios’ amendment.

Rep. John Allen, who oversaw the debate in the House committee, said Rios’ amendment is a “big part” of why the bill has been held up. Though he claimed Republicans have enough votes to defeat the amendment, Allen, R-Phoenix, said he doesn’t want to have another floor fight about the issue.

Rios said House Majority Leader Steve Montenegro specifically asked her if there was any way she’d consider dropping her amendment to SB1102 and allow the bill to go through what could be a testy debate – one that would be ill-timed for Republicans in an election year, Rios said Montenegro told her.

“They clearly do not want me to put their members in a position that they would have to vote on this,” Rios said.

Montenegro could not be reached for comment.

Barto said she’s concerned there may even be enough votes in the House to adopt the Rios amendment – a move that would defy the will of the voters, who she said agree that it’s in a child’s best interest to be raised by a man and woman.

“It’s always been about what’s in the best interest of a child, not the parents; not the wishes of the parents and the desires of the adults in question,” Barto said, later adding that voting on the Rios amendment is too risky. “We just don’t want to take that chance, and make sure we’re listening to our voters. So I think that we’re being thoughtful in the process.”

House Republican spokeswoman Stephanie Grisham said Montenegro and other GOP leaders are focused on the budget, and “the most appropriate use of time is not going to be responding to conjecture and speculation” about other legislation, including SB1102.

Avoiding a debate

Sen. Steve Farley tried in vain to bring up the issue in the Senate on April 4, when he offered an amendment similar to Rios’ on the Senate floor. But Senate Majority Leader Steve Yarbrough cited Senate rules and argued that the amendment was not germane to the underlying bill, HB2522, which makes changes to the Department of Child Safety’s hotline for reports of abuse and neglect. Sen. Steve Smith, R-Maricopa, serving as chair during voting on the floor, ruled in Yarbrough’s favor, nixing the chance for a debate.

Farley, D-Tucson, lamented what he called the great lengths to which Republicans have gone to avoid debating same-sex couples’ adoption rights.

“It’s clear that the body doesn’t want to debate this issue,” Farley said.

Yarbrough, R-Chandler, insisted he’d be happy to have “a delightful debate” on adoption rights – so long as Democrats can offer a germane amendment.

“The rule is the rule, game over,” Yarbrough said, adding that he’d be willing to debate “the merit of the question of whether a child is better served being adopted by a man and a woman than a single parent, a same-sex parent or people from Mars.”

On the same day, Democrats were prepared to offer a germane adoption amendment to another child safety bill, HB2269. The bill was scheduled for a vote on the Senate floor on April 4, but was removed at the last minute because of another amendment Farley was prepared to offer, he said.

The amendment would have made the same change as his proposed amendment to HB2522, but also included new language on how DCS verifies that a home is suitable for adoption. Farley called the language a “bridge” to ensure that his amendment would not be ruled out of order.

Barto said Farley’s amendment “could have something to do” with the decision to pull HB2269 from a floor vote.

It’s not the first time Senate Republicans have avoided the same-sex adoption issue.

Sen. Katie Hobbs, D-Phoenix, was prepared to offer an amendment similar to Rios’ to SB1415. But Barto, the bill’s sponsor, held it from a hearing in her own committee to avoid the uncomfortable debate about same-sex adoptions, Hobbs said. Holding the bill led Barto to amend some of the measures that were initially in SB1415 to SB1102 – the bill House Republicans are now blocking for the same reason.

Hobbs also sponsored SB1409, which seeks to change all reference in state law from “husband and wife” to “married couple” or “spouse.” The bill was double-assigned in the Senate and never given a hearing.

Farley sponsored nearly identical language in SB1171, a bill that was assigned to a Senate committee, but never given a hearing.

In the House, Rep. Ceci Velasquez, D-Litchfield Park, sponsored HB2392, a bill that mirrors the Rios amendment. The bill was never assigned to a committee.

No path forward

Rep. Kate Brophy McGee, a Phoenix Republican who supports Rios’ amendment to SB1102, lamented that the mere potential for debate on same-sex adoption has stalled efforts to improve the adoption process in a way that helps Arizona’s foster kids from finding a permanent home more quickly. There are roughly 19,000 in the state’s care.

SB1102 includes several statutory changes Brophy McGee said were requested by the Department of Child Safety, including a measure to exempt licensed foster parents from pre-adoption certification if the parent is applying to adopt a foster child already in his or her care.

The amended bill also allows outside entities contracted by DCS to conduct those pre-adoption investigations; prohibits a child from being committed to juvenile corrections simply for being declared incorrigible or dependent by the court; and provides greater flexibility for foster parents to get training to renew their license.

As Republicans and Democrats at the Capitol bicker over same-sex adoptions, “it appears foster kids are being used as a political football in an election year,” Brophy McGee said. It is GOP leadership’s decision to hold the bill from a floor vote, she said, though she added that Rios is fighting a losing battle.

“I agree with Rios,” Brophy McGee said. “I just don’t see a path forward.”

Barto said Republican lawmakers are simply honoring the will of the voters, as reflected by their vote in 2008 to outlaw same-sex marriage. The U.S. Supreme Court forced the definition of same-sex marriage to be changed across the country, but “the voters haven’t had their say on that,” Barto said.

—   Includes information from The Associated Press

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