BIRMINGHAM, Ala. (WIAT) – When Alaina Browning got the message, she looked at her phone and cried.
Browning, a 30-year-old librarian from Jasper, was watching her fears come true. She and her husband may not be able to adopt a child in her home state of Alabama.
Browning and her husband have already been foster parents – caring for children coming from often difficult and always complex situations. Now, they wanted to adopt a child – to find a sibling for their 5-year-old daughter.
But one thing kept getting in the way, becoming a barrier in the process of adoption in Alabama. It wasn’t the Brownings’ income or home situation. It wasn’t about their background or their ability to take care of a child. One thing kept blocking their path – the Brownings aren’t religious.
“It hurt,” Alaina Browning said of the message she’d just received from a child adoption agency she’d reached out to about a potential adoption.
Browning had been upfront, asking the agency whether being “secular” would automatically take them out of the running for an adoption.
“Define secular?” Browning was asked.
“Atheist/Agnostic,” she replied.
The response was stark. “I am sorry,” the agency said. “We could not work with you. We are not specific about one’s faith but the biological families that we work with do request that our adoptive families have a spiritual life.”
Browning replied “Okay. Thank You.” But she was crushed.
Then she received another reply.
“I don’t know of an agency in Alabama who would accept your application,” the reply said. “Perhaps an adoption facilitator out of state. I do not know of one however.”
Browning said she was surprised by the response.
“I just thought that nothing we do – no certifications or qualifications that we can do – will ever be enough if this is what they look at,” she said. “If they think that we’re somehow immoral just for a belief system or lack thereof.”
Susan Wyatt was the person who had sent Browning the message.
Wyatt, who with her husband Richard runs Alabama Family Adoption Services, said that she’s sorry the message upset Browning.
She confirmed that her agency does not work with adoptive families who are not religious, but she said it’s because of the wishes of birth mothers.
“In the cases that we’ve found in 36 years, most of our mothers come to us asking that the adoptive families have a belief system,” she said. “We’ve placed children with Jewish families. We did have an Indian family at one point. I don’t think that we’ve ever had a Muslim family.”
Wyatt said that she can’t recall a single case in her decades of experience where a mother did not express a preference for a family that believed in some higher power.
“We have to acknowledge that,” she said.
Alaina Browning said that she respects the wishes of birth mothers, but she finds it hard to believe that all mothers express a preference for a religious family. She said potential adoptive families shouldn’t be weeded out of the adoption process before it even begins because of their lack of religious views.
“Maybe she was trying to save me some heartbreak later on,” Browning said of Wyatt. “But I feel to turn people away just as you’re seeking information is a problem.”
Browning, who grew up going to church, said it did occur to her that she may be able to just fake religious views, but she said it didn’t feel right to do so.
“It feels disingenuous,” she said. “So I would guilt trip myself over it. It lacks integrity.”
Discrimination in the adoption process is not a new discussion in Alabama. In 2017, the year Browning’s biological child was born, Gov. Kay Ivey signed a law allowing private adoption agencies to turn away adoptive parents for religious reasons, including opposition to same-sex marriage.
Susan Wyatt said she believes Alabama Family Adoptive Services is the only private adoption agency that facilitates adoptions to same-sex couples, although she believes that other agencies should not face repercussions if they choose not to do so.
“We are a private company,” she said. “We’re not dictated, particularly, by the law.”
When asked whether an adoption agency should be able to refuse services to an interracial couple without legal consequences, Wyatt said she wasn’t sure how to answer.
Wyatt also said that although they have not dealt with any such cases, she’s unsure whether her agency would facilitate an adoption for a birth mother who, for example, expressed a preference for a non-religious home. She and her husband, who co-own the agency, would have to discuss the issue, she said.
Wyatt also responded to Browning’s perception that she’s been discriminated against because of her lack of religion.
“Well, I am the mother of two adopted children, and I believe that these children are gifts from God,” Wyatt said. “I wouldn’t be a mother or a MeMe if it wasn’t for two women who carried our children to term and gave them to us as a gift. We’re not in charge of where these babies go. God is. And it’s the mother’s choice. And 99 percent of those families talk about faith.”
For her part, Alaina Browning said that she and her husband are reconsidering whether to adopt at all because of the barriers that have already blocked their path. But she said she hopes agencies like Wyatt’s become more open to those who don’t identify as religious.
“I think they’re looking at it as an absence or a vacuum instead of its own faith, in a way,” she said.
Browning said anti-discrimination laws concerning religion and the adoption process should also be changed, if not for people like her, for the children that may need a loving home.
In her work as a children’s librarian, Browning saw children from all backgrounds, facing challenges even adults should not have to confront. It was one of the things that motivated her to want to adopt.
“These kids still need homes,” she said. “We may still pursue adoption, but the system needs to be reworked. There’s only so much that can be done when it’s the private sector, but this presents a barrier to getting kids into happy, healthy homes.”