Maddonna v. Dept. of Health and Human Services
At its heart, this case is about two of our country’s most sacred principles: defending religious freedom for all and protecting vulnerable children. It is unconstitutional for 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.
While this policy only applies to South Carolina for now, it sets a dangerous nationwide precedent that could have a significant and lasting impact. There are nearly 5,000 children in foster care in South Carolina, and nearly a half-million kids in care nationwide. By allowing agencies to turn away qualified parents, these kids will spend even longer in an already overburdened system instead of being welcomed into loving families.
Americans United for Separation of Church and State filed Maddonna v. U.S. Dept. of Health and Human Services in 2019 to stop the federal government and South Carolina from authorizing and encouraging religious discrimination with taxpayer dollars.
Aimee Maddonna, a mother of three, was seeking opportunities for her family to help children in foster care. Miracle Hill Ministries, 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 will only 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 Jan. 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 don’t share their religious beliefs; McMaster issued a similar order in March 2018.
Americans United filed a federal lawsuit in the U.S. District Court in South Carolina because the narrow religious beliefs of a government-funded agency should not be allowed to override the best interest of America’s most vulnerable children or our fundamental principle of religious freedom.
Aug. 20, 2020: In an amicus brief filed by Americans United in the Supreme Court case Fulton v. Philadelphia, Aimee Maddonna and three other prospective foster families shared their devastating experiences of being turned away by taxpayer-funded foster care agencies because they couldn’t pass the agencies' religious litmus tests. Read AU's statement here.
Nov. 19, 2019: The Trump Administration proposed a nationwide rule that would strip critical protections against discrimination on the basis of religion, sex, sexual orientation and gender identity across all federally funded programs run by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. The proposed rule would allow taxpayer-funded social service providers to turn away people in need who rely on programs such as foster care, emergency housing and elder care. Read our statement here.
July 22, 2019: AU, along with 125 national civil rights, faith and child welfare organizations from the Coalition Against Religious Discrimination (CARD), urged U.S. Dept. of Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar not to implement a nationwide rule that would allow taxpayer-funded foster care agencies to discriminate in the name of religion against prospective parents and volunteers. Read our letter here.
June 25, 2019: AU President & CEO Rachel Laser testified before Congress in support of the Do No Harm Act, which would protect people like Aimee from religion-based discrimination. Watch the hearing here, or read her testimony here.
June 11, 2019: U.S. Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.) introduced the Every Child Deserves a Family (ECDF) Act in the U.S. Senate. The legislation would protect children and families – including people like Aimee who want to help kids in foster care – from religion-based discrimination. Read the bill here.
June 5, 2019: U.S. Rep. John Lewis (D-Ga.) introduced the Every Child Deserves a Family (ECDF) Act, which would ensure that taxpayer-funded adoption, foster care and child welfare agencies don’t discriminate against children or families – including people like Aimee – on the basis of religion, sex, sexual orientation, gender identity or marital status. Read the bill here. Read AU's statement here and our blog post here.
May 24, 2019: Reports surfaced that the Trump administration is considering a new policy to allow all foster care agencies nationwide to use religion to justify discrimination against parents, volunteers and children.
March 27, 2019: Thirty-seven Pennsylvania lawmakers sent a letter to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, seeking a waiver similar to the one granted in South Carolina that allows foster-care agencies to turn away parents who are the "wrong" religion or LGBTQ. Read the letter here.
March 13, 2019: U.S. Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) led more than 40 senators in sending a letter to the Trump administration to object to the waiver that allows taxpayer-funded foster-care agencies in South Carolina to reject any parents or volunteers deemed to be the “wrong” religion. Read the letter here.
Feb. 28, 2019: U.S. Reps. Joe Kennedy III (D-Mass.) and Bobby Scott (D-Va.) and Sen. Kamala Harris (D-Calif.) reintroduced the Do No Harm Act, which would protect people like Aimee Maddonna by restoring the federal Religious Freedom Restoration Act to its original intent of preserving the law’s power to protect religious exercise while clarifying that it may not be used to discriminate against others. Read our statement here. Urge members of Congress to support the Do No Harm Act here:
Feb. 15, 2019: Americans United filed Maddonna v. U.S. Dept. of Health and Human Services on behalf of Aimee Maddonna to stop the federal government and South Carolina from authorizing and encouraging religious discrimination with taxpayer dollars. Read our statement here, a blog post here and an exclusive Associated Press interview with Aimee here.
Feb. 14, 2019: Americans United led a broad coalition of more than 100 national organizations through the Coalition Against Religious Discrimination in denouncing the Trump administration’s decision to allow taxpayer-funded foster care agencies in South Carolina to reject any parents or volunteers they deem to be the “wrong” religion. Read the letter here and a blog post here
Feb. 13, 2019: U.S. Reps. Angie Craig (D-Minn.), Sean Maloney (D-N.Y.) and Katie Hill (D-Calif.) spearheaded a letter from nearly 100 members of Congress to object to the policy – “an egregious violation of the very principles our nation and our child welfare system were founded upon.” Read the letter here and a blog post here.
Jan. 23, 2019: The Trump administration announced it would sanction taxpayer-funded discrimination by allowing South Carolina foster care agencies to refuse to work with anyone they deem the “wrong” religion. Read the U.S. Dept. of Health and Human Services' letter here, AU's statement here and a blog post here.
Dec. 17, 2018: Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton requested the Trump administration to repeal or grant a waiver for federal anti-discrimination provisions so Texas foster-care agencies can turn away prospective parents on the basis of religion. Read the letter here.
March 13, 2018: South Carolina Gov. Henry McMaster issued an executive order to allow taxpayer-funded foster care agencies to reject prospective parents who don’t “share the same faith.” Read the order here.
Feb. 27, 2018: South Carolina Gov. Henry McMaster requested a federal waiver for all South Carolina taxpayer-funded foster care agencies to reject prospective parents on the basis of religion. Read AU's blog post here.
The Associated Press: "AP Exclusive: Lawsuit claims discrimination by foster agency"
Religion News Service: "In fight over Protestant-only foster agency, lawsuit asks: Who is a Christian?"
Religion News Service: "Government allows S.C. foster care group to keep Protestants-only policy"