May 2019 Church & State Magazine | Editorial

President Donald Trump did not invent the “big lie” – the idea that if you just say something over and over again with enough conviction people will start to believe it even if it isn’t true – but members of his administration and his supporters have refined it to an art form.

Consider a recent example from South Carolina. Americans United is suing state and federal officials there over a Trump administration decision to allow a taxpayer-funded foster-care agency called Miracle Hill Ministries to work only with like-minded conservative evangelical Protestants.

AU’s client in this case is Aimee Maddonna, a mother of three children (two of them with special needs) who was turned away from volunteering with kids in foster care at Miracle Hill for no other reason than that she’s Catholic. According to officials at Miracle Hill, Maddonna’s faith is the “wrong” kind of Christianity.

Just to be clear: A taxpayer-funded entity that has a contract from the state to provide services told a woman to leave because of her religion. To most reasonable people, this looks like a clear-cut case of discrimination.

Many people would also see it as a short-sighted policy. Miracle Hill’s goal should be to find loving homes for as many children as possible. But by applying an exceedingly narrow religious test to volunteers and potential foster parents, the agency dramatically reduces the pool of people who may take in a child who needs a home.

Yet, according to an official at Miracle Hill, the agency is not discriminating and its policies are good for kids. Sandy Furnell, a spokesperson for Miracle Hill, told NBC News recently that Maddonna is not the victim of discrimination.

“There are multiple agencies that work with prospective foster families,” Furnell said. “We are not preventing anyone from fostering.”

Furnell added, “What we do is work with coreligionists who share our mission.” Allowing the agency to do this, she said, is “adding to the diversity of options.”

Let’s consider both of these claims. The claim that Miracle Hill is not discriminating is absurd on its face. The classic definition of discrimination is treating someone unfavorably because of factors about themselves – their race, their gender, their religion, their country of origin, their sexual expression, etc. That is exactly what happened to Maddonna.

Furthermore, the argument that “she could have gone somewhere else” is offensive. It’s exactly what we heard during the Jim Crow era in the South. In fact, there was often nowhere else to go; and if there were, it was inferior. But that’s beside the point: Maddonna shouldn’t have to go somewhere else. Miracle Hill gets tax money and operates on behalf of the government. It should be legally required to serve all qualified applicants.

Furnell’s second point about how Miracle Hill’s discriminatory policies promote diversity is similarly nonsensical. Miracle Hill is willing to work with conservative evangelicals only. That means not only are Catholics such as Maddonna shut out, but so are liberal Protestants, Jews, Muslims, Buddhists, Hindus, non-theists, Wiccans, agnostics and many others.

Remember, these people are excluded from the get-go simply because of what they believe (or don’t believe) about God. It doesn’t matter what kind of experiences they have had, what resources they may be able to tap or how loving and caring they are. Miracle Hill won’t consider them because they go to the “wrong” church (or don’t go to church at all).

There is simply no way that an exclusionary policy expands options for children in need. Recent surveys have shown that evangelicals account for about 22 percent of the U.S. population. That number is probably higher in South Carolina, but when you consider that Miracle Hill would likely reject even some self-identified evangelicals for failing its religious purity test, it’s easy to see that the vast majority of people who want to help these children and perhaps even provide a loving home won’t get past step one.

Yes, that is discrimination. Limiting children to conservative evangelical families leaves children with fewer options and fewer avenues out of foster care. It does nothing to help the children left in Miracle Hill’s care.

Miracle Hill is engaging in discrimination. It’s wrong, and it’s bad for the children in the agency’s care. That’s why Americans United is proud to be fighting in court to put a stop to it.