Virginians witnessed an important victory for religious liberty last week. On Monday, Governor Bob McDonnell (R) signed legislation that affirms the conscience rights of the state’s religiously affiliated adoption agencies.

The new law protects private adoption agencies from being forced “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.” This “conscience clause” ensures that private, faith-based adoption agencies will be able to continue providing foster care and adoption services to Virginia children without violating their deeply held beliefs about marriage and family.

Last April, the Virginia State Board of Social Services considered a controversial policy to add sexual orientation, family status, age, religion, and other characteristics to the state’s family services nondiscrimination policy. The addition would have prohibited private adoption agencies from considering any of those characteristics in prospective parents. For an adoption agency that believes children deserve the unique benefits of being raised in a mother-father household, the proposed policy would have forced the organization to either disregard its deeply held beliefs or lose its state-issued license and potentially close its doors.

“Private, religious-based adoption agencies are a major asset to our communities as they work diligently to find loving, caring, stable homes for children in need of care,” explained a representative from McDonnell’s office. Indeed, 42 of the almost 60 state-licensed adoption agencies are religiously affiliated. Roughly 80 percent of the more than 2,000 Virginia adoptions conducted in 2002 (the latest year for which data are available) were facilitated by private agencies or through direct placement.

“This legislation will help ensure that these adoption agencies remain active in finding homes for these children, without being mandated by government to violate the tenets of their deeply held religious beliefs in the process,” the governor’s office stated. “This is a bill that reaffirms religious liberty and freedom, a hallmark of this great nation.”

Virginiabecomes the second state, joiningNorth Dakota, to protect the rights of religiously affiliated adoption and foster care agencies. In other states, however, unfettered nondiscrimination policies have already inflicted unintended yet serious consequences to private child services agencies.

In Massachusetts and the District of Columbia, existing nondiscrimination policies and the newly enacted same-sex marriage laws formed an unholy union to prohibit faith-based agencies from abiding by their deeply held beliefs about marriage and family when placing children. Likewise, the legalization of civil unions in Illinois last year, coupled with the state’s nondiscrimination policy, forced multiple Catholic Charities adoption agencies to cease providing foster care services, shifting the care of thousands of children to other state-approved organizations.

Private, faith-based organizations provide invaluable support and assistance to the most vulnerable individuals in their communities through adoption and foster care services and beyond. Protecting the rights of these organizations to act in accordance with their deeply held beliefs—the same beliefs that spur them to service in the first place—should be a priority for policymakers and national leaders. Where a government chooses to involve itself in cultural moral debates, like the redefinition of marriage, policymakers should be particularly vigilant to protect the religious freedom of individuals and organizations.