ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:
The foster care system in this country has been home to about half a million children every year for the last 10 years. There's a debate happening about who has the right to take care of those children permanently. About 10 states have made it legal to turn away same-sex couples who want to adopt. Rachel Hubbard of member station KOSU in Oklahoma City reports.
RACHEL HUBBARD, BYLINE: Kris Williams and Rebekah Wilson have been dating for four years. They live together in a modest white house on the west side of Oklahoma City with their two dogs and Ozzy, Kris' son from a previous relationship. Here's Rebekah.
REBEKAH WILSON: I have felt for a long time, before I was even out of the closet, to be a parent to children who otherwise won't have a family and a home.
HUBBARD: And so when she met Kris...
WILSON: I was excited to have Ozzy be a part of my life. But our family's not done.
HUBBARD: In May, Oklahoma passed a law Rebekah worries may threaten that future. In many states, private organizations, including religious ones, contract with state child welfare services to provide foster and adoption placements.
The new law says that if a religious organization turns away a parent because of a conflict in belief, the religious agency cannot be sued for discrimination. Republican State Senator Greg Treat is the bill's author.
GREG TREAT: In my estimation, it's an anti-discrimination bill saying that just because you're a church, just because you're Mormon, Christian, Islamic, whatever your faith group is, the state of Oklahoma should not be able to discriminate against you based on whatever deeply held religious beliefs you have.
HUBBARD: On average, Oklahoma's foster system serves more than 15,000 kids a year and was sued in federal court because of the poor service it was providing. As part of that settlement, the state agreed to get kids out of public shelters and find more private foster homes.
The number of homes has increased - not enough though, according to Senator Treat. But he says this legislation could make more groups comfortable recruiting families.
TREAT: We have some that are really skittish about being involved because they're worried about exposing themselves to potential lawsuits.
HUBBARD: About 15 years ago in Boston and the District of Columbia, Catholic Charities would've had to comply with local laws requiring them to place children with same-sex couples. So rather than risking lawsuits, the church ended foster and adoption programs. That's when the Heritage Foundation, a national conservative think tank, started promoting the legislation Oklahoma and Kansas just passed.
Rebekah Wilson says the state should not take her tax dollars and permit discrimination.
WILSON: While I believe this is morally wrong, I believe it's, beyond that, legally in violation because they are contracted by state agencies to provide this service.
HUBBARD: There are basic standards for becoming a foster parent. For example, in Oklahoma, you have to be 21 years old, in reasonably good health and capable of understanding, loving and accepting a child. Many of these things are subjective, and contracted agencies make judgment calls when they choose whether or not to work with a family - a family like the one Kris Williams and Rebekah Wilson are hoping to grow.
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: So do you think you could teach a younger brother or sister how to ride a bike?
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: Yeah?
HUBBARD: The first of these laws came onto the books in Virginia back in 2012. Eight other states have passed similar bills. Meanwhile, Freedom Oklahoma, an LGBTQ rights group, plans to file a lawsuit on November 1, the day the law is set to take effect. For NPR News, I'm Rachel Hubbard in Oklahoma City. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.