One of the country’s largest adoption and foster care agencies, Bethany Christian Services, announced Monday that it would begin providing services to LGBTQ parents nationwide effective immediately, a major inflection point in the fraught battle over many faith-based agencies’ long-standing opposition to working with same-sex couples.

Bethany, a Michigan-based evangelical organization announced the change in an email to about 1,500 staff members that was signed by Chris Palusky, the organization’s president and CEO. “We will now offer services with the love and compassion of Jesus to the many types of families who exist in our world today,” Palusky wrote. “We’re taking an all hands on deck’ approach where all are welcome.”

The announcement is a significant departure for the 77-year-old organization, which is the largest Protestant adoption and foster agency in the United States. Bethany facilitated 3,406 foster placements and 1,123 adoptions in 2019, and has offices in 32 states. (The organization also works in refugee placement, and offers other services related to child and family welfare.) Previously, openly gay prospective foster and adoptive parents in most states were referred to other agencies.

The decision comes amid a high-stakes cultural and legal battle that features questions about sexuality, religious freedom, parenthood, family structure and theology.

Adoption is a potent issue in both conservative Christian and gay communities. Faith-based agencies play a substantial role in placing children in new families. Meanwhile, more than 20% of same-sex couples with children have an adopted child, compared to 3% of straight couples, according to a 2016 report from the Williams Institute at UCLA School of Law. Gay couples are also significantly likelier to have a foster child.

“To use a Christian term, this is good news,” said Guthrie Graves-Fitzsimmons, a fellow with the Faith and Progressive Policy Initiative at the Center for American Progress. “For too long the public witness of Christianity has been anti-this or anti-that,” he added. “Today the focus is on serving children in need.”

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Bethany’s practice of referring gay couples to other agencies was not official, the agency’s leaders said. “It was a general understanding that was pervasive,” said Susanne Jordan, a board member and former employee. But since 2007, the organization had a position statement saying that “God’s design for the family is a covenant and lifelong marriage of one man and one woman.”

Bethany’s informal policy became increasingly challenging for the organization in recent years, as various states and municipalities began requiring agencies to accept applications from LGBTQ couples in order to maintain their government contracts.

When a lesbian couple in Philadelphia attended a Bethany information session on foster parenting in 2018, they were told “this organization has never placed a child with a same-sex couple,” one of the women told The Philadelphia Inquirer. They were eventually referred to another agency. Media reports prompted the city to suspend contracts with Bethany’s local branch and Catholic Social Services, an agency with the same practice.

Some faith-based agencies have challenged new requirements to work with gay clients in the courts. Catholic Social Services sued the city of Philadelphia over its contract suspension, a case that the Supreme Court heard in November. A ruling is expected by the end of June.

Bethany, by contrast, has generally opted to comply. In Philadelphia, the branch changed its policy to work with gay parents, and the city restored its contract. That year, Bethany’s national board passed a resolution granting local boards the authority to comply with state and local contract requirements. As of last year, the organization said, Bethany branches in 12 states were working with LGBTQ families, although those changes were rarely publicized.

“I am disappointed in this decision, as are many,” Russell Moore, president of the Southern Baptist Convention’s Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission, said in a statement Monday. “This move will harm already existing efforts to enable faith-based orphan care ministries to serve the vulnerable without capitulating on core Christian convictions,” he added, referring to litigation like the case in Philadelphia.

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Bethany’s new approach is something of a tightrope act: an attempt to establish a clear, consistent policy of inclusion that does not rattle its core constituencies, including the churches that are its primary venue for recruiting parents. The inclusivity resolution passed in January eliminated the 2007 position statement on marriage being between one man and one woman. But the new statement does not endorse same-sex relationships.

The policy, which was quietly approved by its 14-member national board on Jan. 21, instead states that “Christians of mutual good faith can reasonably disagree on various doctrinal issues, about which Bethany does not maintain an organizational position.”

The board’s vote was unanimous, but internal discussions have prompted “a few” board members to depart since 2018, according to Nathan Bult, Bethany’s senior vice president for public and government affairs. He emphasized that the current board included members with “diverse personal views on sexuality.”

Many evangelical nonprofit groups are familiar with how policy changes like this can go awry. When the evangelical relief agency World Vision announced in 2014 that it would begin hiring Christians in same-sex marriages, donor backlash was so fierce that the group reversed the decision within 48 hours. Palusky, who arrived at Bethany in 2018, was an executive at World Vision at that time.

Even Bethany’s past partial acquiescence drew fierce criticism from some conservative evangelicals. Bethany’s Mississippi branch parted ways with the national organization over objections to the policy change in Philadelphia. And when the organization changed its policy in Michigan in 2019, in response to the state’s announcement that it would no longer fund agencies that did not accept gay couples, a cover story in World, an evangelical magazine read “GIVING UP” with an illustration depicting a hand waving a white flag from behind a desk.

Bethany said it was “disappointed” in the Michigan requirement at the time. But Palusky also argued that becoming technically open to LGBTQ clients in a few locations would not significantly affect the organization’s work.

Over time, however, “it got to a point where it became really untenable to have this patchwork of practices,” Bult said. “Bethany was ready and Christians are ready.”The organization has been quietly exploring the latter claim for several years now. Last year, it commissioned a survey from evangelical pollster Barna that found 32% of self-identified Christians believed that sexual orientation should not determine who could foster or adopt.

In the coming months, Bethany will offer training to all employees. “We’re opening the door to more families and more churches,” Jordan said. “We recognize there are people who will not be happy. We may lose some donors. But the message we’re trying to give is inviting people alongside of us. Serving children should not be controversial.”