The Trump administration has granted a federally funded foster care agency in South Carolina the right to freely discriminate against potential foster parents who are LGBTQ or who are Jewish, Muslim, Hindu, Catholic and other non-Protestant faiths.
The Department of Health and Human Services issued a waiver Wednesday that will allow Greenville’s Miracle Hill Ministries and other faith-based foster care agencies in South Carolina to continue to turn away some foster parents based on religious criteria.
Miracle Hill, which is reportedly responsible for up to 15 percent of foster care placements in South Carolina, was in danger of losing its license over an Obama-era regulation that prevented federally funded foster care agencies from citing religious beliefs to discriminate.
One of the conditions of the waiver is that Miracle Hill is required to refer foster parents it rejects to other agencies or the state’s Department of Social Services.
South Carolina Gov. Henry McMaster requested the waiver from the federal government in February. In a statement Wednesday, he praised President Donald Trump and HHS Secretary Alex Azar for the decision.
“By granting this waiver, President Trump and Secretary Azar have shown the entire world that, as Americans, our fundamental right to practice religion, regardless of our faith, will not be in jeopardy under this administration,” McMaster said.
Miracle Hill’s CEO Reid Lehman said in a statement that the decision allows the organization to keep its license and continue serving nearly 200 foster children.
“It’s always been about the license, our right to exist,” Lehman said.
Miracle Hill’s CEO Reid Lehman and foster care director Brenda Parks deliver a statement on the HHS waiver below.
But non-Christian groups and LGBTQ rights advocacy groups are upset about the administration’s decision to privilege Miracle Hill’s religious liberty over the civil rights of queer or non-Protestant South Carolinians. At least one Jewish woman who wanted to volunteer with Miracle Hill to mentor children in foster care was turned away because of its policies, the Greenville News reported.
While Miracle Hill said it doesn’t expect the children it places in homes to be Christian, it does expect foster parents to raise them in a Christian environment. This means the children are expected to worship with the foster family at church and at home.
Miracle Hill employees, foster parents and mentors are required to sign a doctrinal statement agreeing to the organization’s core evangelical beliefs. Its strict religious requirements preclude even Catholics from participating in its foster care program, according to the Religion News Service.
The Anti-Defamation League said the decision set a “dangerous precedent” for the country. “It is shocking that the federal government is openly sanctioning discrimination against Jews, LGBTQ [people] and others,” Jonathan Greenblatt, the ADL’s national director, said in a statement.
Lambda Legal, which advocates on behalf of LGBTQ Americans, called the Trump administration’s move “unacceptable and alarming” ― especially since LGBTQ youth are overrepresented in the foster care system.
“The Trump administration continues to violate the most basic principles of the freedom of religion by allowing these agencies to prioritize their beliefs and ignore nondiscrimination laws,” Currey Cook, a Lambda Legal representative who works with LGBTQ youths in out-of-home care, said in a statement. “Freedom of religion is a fundamental value in the United States, but none of our religious beliefs should come at the expense of our children.”
The administration’s waiver comes as South Carolina is experiencing a severe and growing shortage of foster homes. The number of children in state custody increased from about 3,100 in 2012 to nearly 4,600 in 2018, according to The Post and Courier.
Leslie Cooper, the deputy director of the American Civil Liberties Union’s LGBT & HIV Project, encouraged Congress to stop the waiver from “setting off a devastating domino effect” that would affect foster care children across the country.
“It is despicable that this administration would authorize federally-funded state child welfare agencies to allow caring, qualified families to be turned away because they don’t pass a religious litmus test,” Cooper said in a statement. “Prospective foster and adoptive parents should be judged only on their capacity to provide love and support to a child — not their faith.”