March 2019 Church & State Magazine | People & Events

Americans United in January blasted the Trump administration for its decision to sanction taxpayer-funded discrimination by allowing South Carolina foster-care agencies the right to refuse to work with anyone they deem the “wrong” religion.

The policy was issued in direct response to a request from South Carolina Gov. Henry McMaster (R) for a waiver to allow a publicly funded foster-care agency, Miracle Hill Ministries, to explicitly reject parents and volunteers who are not aligned with the agency’s religious beliefs, including Jews and Catholics. The issue arose after a Jewish woman learned she could not mentor or foster children through Miracle Hill due to her faith.

“This is yet another example of the Trump administration using religion to advance a regressive political agenda that harms others. And this time, the target is not only religious minorities but also our most vulnerable children – those in need of loving homes,” said Rachel Laser, president and CEO of Americans United. “It is unconscionable that this administration would use government funds to discriminate against the very populations our laws are designed to protect.

“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,” Laser continued. “Religious freedom is a fundamental American right – it should never be used to justify discrimination.”

AU says the policy could put a significant strain on the foster-care system and leave even more kids without homes if more states seek similar waivers. Other agencies across the country are demanding the right to turn away otherwise qualified parents who don’t pass a religious litmus test. There are already 443,000 children in foster care nationwide, including the 123,000 waiting for adoption – fewer than half of whom will find their forever home within a year.

The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services issued the waiver, which was granted to the South Carolina governor Jan. 23.

The waiver allows Miracle Hill and all government-funded foster-care agencies in South Carolina to refuse to work with qualified prospective parents who don’t share their religious beliefs. It relies on what AU believes is a faulty interpretation of the Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA) as justification for this policy.

News media reported that the waiver was issued in consultation with the Office for Civil Rights, which concluded that Miracle Hill (and any similar religious organizations in the foster-care program) is entitled to an exemption from federal anti-discrimination laws under RFRA. However, Americans United asserts that this policy violates the original       intent of RFRA and is a drastic departure from longstanding federal protections that have applied to part­nerships between the government and faith-based providers for decades.

As this issue of Church & State was going to press, Americans Uni­ted filed a lawsuit against the discriminatory policy on behalf of Aim­ee Maddonna, a Roman Catholic woman in South Carolina who was denied the opportunity to foster children by Miracle Hill because of her religious beliefs. Read more about the case, Maddonna v. U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, in next month’s Church & State.

Americans United has urged Congress to pass the Do No Harm Act (DNHA), which 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. During the 115th Con­gress, the DNHA was introduced in both chambers by Reps. Joseph Ken­nedy (D-Mass.) and Bobby Scott (D-Va.) and Sens. Kamala Harris (D-Calif.), Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) and Mazie Hirono (D-Hawaii).