April 2019 Church & State Magazine | Cover Story

Aimee Maddonna grew up in a home that welcomed and cared for children from the foster-care system. Now an adult and raising three kids of her own, Maddonna wanted to continue the family tradition of helping children in need.

A resident of Simpsonville, S.C., Maddonna was familiar with the prominent advertising for Miracle Hill Ministries – a taxpayer-funded social-service provider and the largest foster-care agency operating in South Carolina. She learned Miracle Hill has a program that would allow her family to volunteer with children in the agency’s care. Because her own children have special needs, she wanted the whole family to have an opportunity to volunteer to make sure they all were ready to take the next step of fostering.

Aimee Maddonna with her children

(PHOTO: Aimee Maddonna at home in South Carolina with two of her children.)

Miracle Hill indicated the Maddonnas were a good fit, and they were finishing up the application process when the agency requested the name of the Maddonnas’ church. Aimee Maddonna responded: Our Lady of the Rosary, a Catholic parish in nearby Greenville.

Abruptly, the Maddonnas were told they weren’t such a good fit after all because they aren’t the right kind of Christians – Miracle Hill rejected the family explicitly because they are Catholic. The agency says it will work with evangelical Protestants only – not Catholics, Jews or people with any other religious or nonreligious beliefs.

“I’ve never considered myself a religious minority until that moment,” Maddonna told the Associated Press in an exclusive interview published on Feb. 15 – the same day Americans United filed a federal lawsuit on her behalf. “I had to tell my kids that, because we’re Catholic, we can’t take these kids out for ice cream and cheer them on at their games. I was devastated.”

Maddonna v. U.S. Department of Health and Human Services was filed to stop the federal government and South Carolina from authorizing and encouraging religious discrimination with taxpayer dollars. Also named in the suit are HHS Secretary Alex Azar, the federal Administration for Children and Families, ACF Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary Steven Wagner, South Carolina Gov. Henry McMaster and South Carolina Department of Social Services Director Joan B. Meacham.

Miracle Hill receives funding from the state and federal governments – according to published reports, the agency received $600,000 in taxpayer money last year. As a publicly funded government contractor, Miracle Hill must comply with state and federal anti-discrimination laws. But rather than denouncing and stopping Miracle Hill’s discriminatory policies, the administrations of President Donald Trump and McMaster doubled down and sanctioned the government-funded religious discrimination.

The South Carolina Department of Social Services (DSS) was aware of Miracle Hill’s policies by spring 2017, according to the lawsuit. While reviewing Miracle Hill’s application to renew its license for 2018, DSS discovered discriminatory policies on the agency’s website. These policies included that any prospective foster parent must be “a born-again believer in the Lord Jesus Christ as expressed by a personal testimony and Christian conduct,” must be an “active participant in, and in good standing with, a Protestant church” and must “have a lifestyle that is free of sexual sin,” which Miracle Hill defines to include homosexuality.

Miracle Hill’s application requests information regarding foster parents’ religious beliefs and practices, including a reference from a pastor, and the agency requires staff to inquire about families’ religious beliefs and practices before accepting them to volunteer or to foster a child.

Because DSS determined Miracle Hill was violating state anti-discrimination laws, it issued Miracle Hill a temporary, rather than a regular, license in January 2018 and required the agency to provide a written plan for addressing the violations and coming into compliance. According to the lawsuit, Miracle Hill never submitted such a plan.

Indeed, Miracle Hill doesn’t think it’s doing anything wrong.

“We are an arm of the Protestant church,” Reid Lehman, Miracle Hill’s CEO, told Religion News Service. “We exist to be a mission arm of Protestant churches and to proclaim Protestant faith. It’s not a judgment or an exclusion. It’s simply that we’re going to be consistent with that.”

Instead of cracking down on a taxpayer-funded agency defying state and federal laws, McMaster immediately took action to create loopholes so the discrimination could not only continue, but expand beyond Miracle Hill.

In February 2018, McMaster wrote to Steven Wagner, then-acting assistant secretary for the Administration for Children and Families (ACF) at the U.S. Department of Health and Hu­man Services (HSS), seeking a waiver to allow all faith-based foster-care agencies in South Carolina to be able to discriminate without risking the loss of their federal funding.

Two weeks later, McMaster issued an executive order requiring South Carolina’s DSS to permit all faith-based foster-care agencies in the state to work only with “foster parents and homes who share the same faith” as the agency.

On Jan. 23, 2019, HHS granted the governor’s request and issued an exception to federal policy that would allow all government-funded foster-care agencies in South Carolina to explicitly reject parents and volunteers who don’t share their religious beliefs. Wagner wrote that the HHS Office of Civil Rights had reviewed the request and determined that Miracle Hill’s “sincere religious exercise would be substantially burdened” by nondiscrimination laws. Wagner even cited the Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA) to justify the waiver, a serious misuse of a federal law that was never intended to weaponize religious freedom as a means to harm others.

AU President and CEO Rachel Laser immediately condemned the policy and warned of the potential consequences of the Trump administration’s escalation of the misuse of RFRA: “While this waiver is specific to South Carolina, it sets a dangerous nationwide precedent that elevates the beliefs of government-funded programs over the best interests of the children in their care. Religious freedom is a fundamental American right – it should never be used to justify discrimination.”

There are nearly 5,000 children in foster care in South Carolina, and nearly a half-million kids in care nationwide. Allowing agencies to turn away qualified parents means these kids will spend even more time in an already overburdened system instead of being welcomed into loving, stable homes.

Texas in December requested that HHS grant it a waiver similar to the one granted to South Carolina, and nine states in recent years have passed state laws or policies that would allow taxpayer-funded foster-care or adoption agencies to discriminate against prospective parents. In fact, South Carolina became the ninth last summer when the legislature slipped the language into a spending bill. Other states with similar laws include Kansas, Michigan, Mississippi, North Dakota, Oklahoma, South Dak­ota, Texas and Virginia. (For more on these state laws, see “The Hand That Blocks The Cradle” in the May 2018 issue of Church & State.)

Maddonna’s lawsuit is the first to challenge the Trump administration’s new policy, but it’s not the only way AU is fighting back against efforts to use religious freedom as a basis for discrimination. On Feb. 28, U.S. Reps. Joe Kennedy III (D-Mass.) and Bobby Scott (D-Va.) and Sen. Kamala Harris (D-Calif.) reintroduced the Do No Harm Act (DNHA), which AU was integrally involved in crafting. The act would restore RFRA to its original intent by preserving the law’s power to act as a shield and protect religious freedom for all while clarifying that the law may not be used as a sword to harm others.

“We need to pass the Do No Harm Act now more than ever to protect people like our client Aimee Maddonna,” Laser said. “We urge all members of Congress to support this legislation and defend religious freedom, one of our country’s most sacred principles.”

While Miracle Hill’s rejection was painful for Maddonna and her family, she said the real victims are the children in the care of Miracle Hill and other agencies that use a religious litmus test to reject prospective parents and volunteers.

“It was difficult for my family, of course, but at the end of the day, my kids still have parents,” said Maddonna. “These foster children need and deserve to have someone looking out for them – and the government is taking that away. They don’t have moms at their football games, or Christmas morning fights with their siblings, or Sunday night dinners around the table. These children are still in an institution. That isn’t right, it isn’t fair and it isn’t necessary.”

It was difficult for my family, of course, but at the end of the day, my kids still have parents. These foster children need and deserve to have someone looking out for them – and the government is taking that away. These children are still in an institution. That isn’t right, it isn’t fair and it isn’t necessary.

~ Aimee Maddonna

Maddonna is particularly sensitive to the well-being of children in foster care because her father grew up in the system at a time when foster parents often weren’t well-vetted. As an adult, he wanted to provide a better experience than he had, and welcomed into his home hundreds of the most vulnerable children in foster care. Aimee Maddonna was consequently raised with many brothers and sisters, some staying for just a few days, others for months. Even though the family wasn’t wealthy, they made sure each child was welcomed and had happy memories.

Maddonna had hoped to provide similar experiences for children in Miracle Hill’s care. And she wasn’t alone: Others have come forward to expose the religious discrimination they faced when attempting to help Miracle Hill’s children. Beth Lesser and Lydia Currie, both of whom are Jewish, have spoken of their families being turned away by Miracle Hill because of their faith.

“I think often about the other older children who were waiting for families, the ones in Miracle Hill institutions whom we could have loved if we had not been rejected because of our faith,” Currie wrote in an op-ed for the Jewish Telegraphic Agency in early February. “I wonder what happened to them – and whether they are still waiting.”

Faith leaders in South Carolina and across the country have condemned Miracle Hill’s discriminatory policies and the state and federal governments’ explicit approval of them. “What is happening to Aimee Maddonna is beyond heartbreaking and beyond comprehension,” said the Rev. Richard Reams of North Charles­ton United Methodist Church.

“As a South Carolinian, I am ashamed of our system and state that would discriminate against someone based on their faith,” said Reams. “As a clergyperson, I am embarrassed at the things being supported in the name of a ‘Protestant’ faith. As a parent, it’s heartbreaking to think of a child being kept from a loving family because of someone else’s prejudicial beliefs. I wish Maddonna the best in her quest to continue caring for the least of these in our community.”

Miracle Hill garnered a seemingly incongruous ally from the faith community: The Catholic Diocese of Charles­ton issued a supportive statement, even though Maddonna, a member of the Catholic Church, was among the victims of Miracle Hill’s discrimination. 

The diocese’s position is not entirely surprising: The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) is supporting federal legislation that would allow faith-based child-welfare organizations to discriminate. The USCCB also prompted a federal lawsuit filed by Lambda Legal last year on behalf of Fatma Marouf and Bryn Esplin, a same-sex couple from Texas the USCCB refused to allow to foster a refugee child (AU has joined as co-counsel).

And Catholic Social Services is suing Philadelphia officials for ending a contract with the agency because it rejects same-sex foster parents on religious grounds. (AU filed a friend-of-the-court brief in the case, Fulton v. City of Philadelphia.) Miracle Hill “should not be forced to discontinue these life-affirming services because they desire to serve children consistent with their Protestant faith,” the Charleston diocese said in a statement, according to the Green­ville News. “Freedom of religion includes every sphere of teaching, service, and public witness required to live according to one’s faith, and no religious group should be forced to alter their beliefs in order to exercise their legitimate freedoms in the public square.”

AU’s Laser countered that freedom of religion is not a license to discriminate or harm others – especially children. 

“At its heart, this case is about two of our country’s most sacred principles: defending religious freedom for all and protecting vulnerable children,” said Laser. “It is unconscion­able – and unconstitutional – that an amazing mother like Aimee Maddon­na and her loving family are barred from helping children in need because they are the ‘wrong’ religion. We will not allow this country to return to the days of ‘no Catholics or Jews allowed.’”

At its heart, this case is about two of our country’s most sacred principles: defending religious freedom for all and protecting vulnerable children. It is unconscion­able – and unconstitutional – that an amazing mother like Aimee Maddon­na and her loving family are barred from helping children in need because they are the ‘wrong’ religion.

~ AU's Rachel Laser

Maddonna noted that if the foster- care waiver is allowed to stand, it could be a stepping stone to more government-sanctioned discrimination that hurts more and more people. 

“When most people think of people being turned away, they think of equally despicable circumstances where a gay couple or a Jewish couple is turned away,” Maddonna said. “If you don’t protect the rights of everybody, it sets a precedent that will eventually touch on you.”

You can help stop the Trump administration’s weaponization of religious freedom as a means to harm others by urging your members of Congress to support the Do No Harm Act. You can contact them through this form.