Aimee Maddonna, a mother of three, was seeking opportunities for her family to help children in foster care. Miracle Hill Ministries, then the largest taxpayer-funded foster care agency in South Carolina, told Aimee her family was a great fit to volunteer with children. But then the agency asked what church the Maddonnas attended. When Aimee offered the name of her Catholic parish, Miracle Hill abruptly rejected her because she’s the “wrong” religion—the agency was only willing to work with evangelical Protestants, not Catholics, Jews, or people of any other faith.
Instead of denouncing this discrimination, the administrations of President Donald Trump and South Carolina Gov. Henry McMaster doubled down, sanctioning the government-funded religious discrimination. In January 2019, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services issued a blanket waiver allowing all government-funded foster care agencies in South Carolina to explicitly reject parents and volunteers who don’t share their religious beliefs without being penalized by the federal government; McMaster issued a similar order in March 2018.
In 2019, representing Aimee, we filed suit in the United States District Court of South Carolina to stop the federal government and South Carolina from authorizing and encouraging religious discrimination with taxpayer dollars. At its heart, the case is about two of our country’s most sacred principles: defending religious freedom for all and protecting vulnerable children. It is unconstitutional to permit taxpayer-funded agencies to discriminate against prospective foster parents and volunteers based on their religion. And no child should be denied an opportunity for a loving, stable home when one is available to them.
After we filed the lawsuit, the Biden Administration rescinded the Trump Administration’s blanket waiver, and Miracle Hill stopped accepting public funds. On September 29, 2023, the district court issued an order granting summary judgment in favor of the defendants. The court concluded that Aimee’s challenge to the public funding of Miracle Hill was moot because that funding had ended. The court also ruled that South Carolina’s continued relationship with Miracle Hill as a privately funded foster-care agency is not unconstitutional. Though we did not agree with the latter ruling, we chose not to appeal.
Aimee’s lawsuit contributed to several events that benefit foster parents and children, in addition to the cessation of state funding of Miracle Hill and the Biden Administration’s rescission of the Trump Administration’s blanket waiver. The federal government issued a notice of rulemaking to strengthen regulations aimed at ensuring that children in foster care are provided safe and appropriate placements. Foster parents in South Carolina now have greater options for foster-care services that are not linked to religion. And Aimee’s story raised awareness that discriminating against willing foster parents based on their religion ultimately harms children most in need of loving homes.