South Carolina

Foster-care ruling: Victory for religious freedom or bias?

South Carolina Department of Social Services
South Carolina Department of Social Services

A federal agency Wednesday granted Republican S.C. Gov. Henry McMaster’s request for a waiver to allow the state Department of Social Service to license faith-based child-placement agencies.

The waiver, issued by the U.S. Department and Health and Human Services, enables the Upstate’s Miracle Hill Ministries to continue its foster-care program, which caters to Christian families.

Supporters, including McMaster, say the waiver allows Social Services to license faith-based child-placement agencies without requiring them to abandon their religious beliefs.

Opponents argue it allows taxpayer-funded discrimination based on religion.

“By granting this waiver, President Trump ... (has) 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 in a statement.

In requesting the waiver, McMaster argued that, without the help of faith-based organizations, the state would have difficulty placing children in need of foster care. More than 4,000 children are in foster care, and the state needs more than 1,000 new foster homes, according to Miracle Hill.

Currently, about 13 percent of S.C. foster families are supported by Miracle Hill. Those families care for about 5 percent of the state’s 4,624 foster children, said Chrysti Shain, a Social Services spokeswoman.

South Carolina licenses 11 child-placement agencies with religious affiliations, Shain said.

The waiver was requested to head off Miracle Hill losing its license and federal funding under a new regulation put in place by the Obama administration. The new rule barred publicly funded foster-care agencies from serving specific religions.

Miracle Hill Foster Care has been operating under a provisional license pending the outcome of the waiver request.

“We are deeply gratified by this decision, which allows Miracle Hill Foster Care to keep its license and continue serving nearly 200 foster children and more than 230 foster families,” Miracle Hill chief executive Reid Lehman said in a statement.

In granting the waiver, Health and Human Services argued the Obama-era regulation improperly expanded the requirements placed on such agencies by federal law.

“This decision ... protects minors who are in need of as many options as possible for being placed in loving foster families,” Lynn Johnson, assistant secretary of the federal agency that administers the foster-care program, said in a statement. “The government should not be in the business of forcing foster care providers to close their doors because of their faith. Religious freedom is a fundamental human right.”

Johnson said all qualified, would-be foster parents will continue to have other options in South Carolina. As a condition of the waiver, federally funded faith-based groups will continue to be required to refer any potential foster-care families that they do not accept to other placement agencies or to Social Services.

The Anti-Defamation League urged Health and Human Services to reject the waiver request, arguing it would allow foster agencies to deny applications by would-be Jewish foster parents and others based on their religion.

According to the Greenville News, Miracle Hill turned away a Jewish woman because she didn’t share the organization’s Christian beliefs. The group also has referred qualified foster parent applicants to other agencies because they were same-sex couples. Lehman told The Post and Courier of Charleston that policy is based on the belief that “God’s design for marriage is the legal joining of one man and one woman.”

“Allowing a taxpayer funded agency to discriminate against Jews and other minorities is outrageous and sets a dangerous precedent,” Anti-Defamation League chief executive Jonathan Greenblatt said in a statement. “This is clearly unlawful and will not hold up in court. No child should be denied a loving foster or adoptive home simply because a prospective parent is Jewish or Muslim, gay or lesbian.”

U.S. Sen. Tim Scott, R-North Charleston, and U.S. Rep. Jeff Duncan, R-Laurens, applauded the Trump administration’s decision as protecting religious liberty.

Said Scott: “We should ensure that federal regulations do not discriminate against faith-based organizations like South Carolina’s Miracle Hill, that only seek to give thousands of children across our state a family and a place to call home.”

Tom Barton covers South Carolina politics for The State. He has spent more than a decade covering local governments and politicians in Iowa and South Carolina, and has won awards from the S.C. Press Association and Iowa Newspaper Association for public service and feature writing.