Discrimination in Social Services

Taxpayer-Funded Foster-Care Agency In S.C. Says It’s Not Engaging In Discrimination. It Is.

  Rob Boston

One of the most frustrating things about living in the Trump era is that some people on the right have concluded that if they just say something over and over with enough force it will be accepted as fact – even if it’s patently absurd.

We saw an example of this recently in South Carolina, where Americans United is suing state and local officials over their decision to allow a taxpayer-funded foster-care agency called Miracle Hill Ministries to work only with like-minded conservative evangelical Protestants.

Our client in this case, Aimee Maddonna, was turned away from volunteering with kids in foster care at Miracle Hill for no other reason than she’s Catholic, a faith that, according to officials at Miracle Hill, is the “wrong” kind of Christianity.

To sum up: A taxpayer-funded entity that has a contract from the state to provide services told a woman to leave because of her religion. It’s a clear-cut case of discrimination.

It’s also a short-sighted policy. By applying an exceedingly narrow religious test to volunteers and potential foster parents. Miracle Hill 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 take these one at a time. 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.

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 simply nonsensical. Miracle Hill is only willing to work with conservative evangelicals. 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).

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 homes won’t get past step one.

Yes, that is discrimination. And it does nothing to help the children left in Miracle Hill’s care. That’s why Americans United is proud to be fighting in court to put a stop to it.

Congress needs to hear from you!

Urge your legislators to co-sponsor the Do No Harm Act today.

The Do No Harm Act will help ensure that our laws are a shield to protect religious freedom and not used as a sword to harm others by undermining civil rights laws and denying access to health care.

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