Feb 15, 2019

Americans United for Separation of Church and State today filed a federal lawsuit on behalf of Aimee Maddonna, a South Carolina mother of three, to stop the federal government and South Carolina from authorizing and encouraging religious discrimination with taxpayer dollars.

Maddonna, of Simpsonville, S.C., and her family had been told by Miracle Hill Ministries they were a great fit to help foster care children. Then the agency asked what church they attended. After learning the family is Catholic, Miracle Hill turned the Maddonnas away, saying they will only work with evangelical Protestants – not Catholics, Jews or people of any other faith. Miracle Hill, the largest foster care provider in South Carolina, is funded by the federal and state governments and must abide by laws that bar religion-based discrimination.

Instead of denouncing this discriminatory practice, the Trump administration and South Carolina Gov. Henry McMaster doubled down, sanctioning the government-funded religious discrimination.

“It was demoralizing to hear we are not good enough because we aren’t the right kind of Christians. 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.”

Maddonna v. U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, the federal lawsuit filed today in the U.S. District Court for the District of South Carolina, argues:

  • It is unconstitutional for government-funded agencies to discriminate against prospective foster parents and volunteers based on their religion.
  • South Carolina and HHS may not spend or provide tax dollars to faith-based foster care agencies that use discriminatory religious criteria.
  • HHS did not follow proper procedure when it excused South Carolina and its foster care agencies from following federal anti-discrimination law.

“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 Rachel Laser, president and CEO of Americans United. “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.’”

On Jan. 23, 2019, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services issued a policy allowing all government-funded foster care agencies in South Carolina to explicitly reject parents and volunteers who are not aligned with their religious beliefs. This was at the direct request of McMaster, who had already issued an executive order on March 13, 2018, that allows agencies to turn away people who don’t “share the same faith.”

“This case isn’t just about Aimee’s family, those like hers, or foster kids in South Carolina – though that would certainly be enough. It’s about the very real threat of our government authorizing religious discrimination with taxpayer dollars nationwide. And it’s about rejecting a regressive political agenda that weaponizes religion to harm others,” said Laser. “We will never stop fighting to protect true religious freedom in our country.”

Aimee Maddonna’s Story:

  • Aimee’s desire to help foster care children was instilled by her father, who grew up in the system at a time when foster parents weren’t well-vetted.
  • As an adult, he wanted to provide foster kids with a better experience than he had and welcomed hundreds of the most vulnerable foster children into his home – providing Aimee with many brothers and sisters, some for just a few days, some for months or longer. Even though the family wasn’t wealthy, they made sure each child was welcomed and had happy memories.
  • Now raising three children of her own alongside her husband, Aimee wants to provide the same loving family experience to a new generation of foster kids. Since her own children have special needs, she wanted the whole family to volunteer to make sure they had a good connection before taking the next step of fostering.
  • Knowing Miracle Hill was the largest and most advertised in her community and allowed both adults and children to volunteer, Aimee felt it would be a perfect arrangement for her family. Miracle Hill felt the same – until they learned she was Catholic.

In addition to HHS, the lawsuit sues HHS Secretary Alex Azar, the federal Administration for Children and Families, ACF Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary Steven Wagner, Gov. McMaster and South Carolina Department of Social Services Director Joan B. Meacham. Americans United Legal Director Richard B. Katskee, Senior Litigation Counsel Kenneth D. Upton Jr. and Legal Fellow Alison Tanner authored the complaint. Americans United is joined by co-counsel Aaron J. Kozloski, Capital Counsel LLC of Lexington, S.C.

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.