Jan 23, 2019

Americans United for Separation of Church and State denounces the Trump administration’s decision today 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 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 their religious beliefs, including Jews and Catholics. This 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.”

This 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 Department of Health and Human Services waiver, which was issued to the South Carolina governor today:

  • Allows Miracle Hill and all government-funded foster care agencies in South Carolina to refuse prospective, qualified parents who don’t share their religious beliefs;
  • Uses the Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA) as justification for 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, the policy violates the original intent of RFRA and is a drastic departure from long-standing federal protections that have applied to partnerships between the government and faith-based providers for decades.

Americans United urges 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).

“The Do No Harm Act is a critical piece of legislation that would preserve the real meaning of religious freedom and protect vulnerable Americans from Trump’s religious discrimination agenda. Passing this bill should be a priority for the 116th Congress,” said Maggie Garrett, vice president for public policy at Americans United.

Americans United is a religious liberty watchdog group based in Washington, D.C. Founded in 1947, the organization educates Americans about the importance of church-state separation in safeguarding religious freedom.