Beth Lesser was an experienced foster parent. So, when she went through training in South Carolina to become a mentor to vulnerable children in foster care, you’d think foster care agencies would welcome her with open arms.
Wrong. One agency in particular – Miracle Hill Ministries, the primary taxpayer-funded social services agency working in the area where Beth lived – informed her and fellow trainees that the agency wouldn’t allow non-Protestants to mentor children in their care, let alone foster them. Since Beth was Jewish, that meant she would be rejected. “I’ve never felt that sort of discrimination before,” she told The Intercept.
Not only did South Carolina lawmakers not stop Miracle Hill from discriminating with taxpayer dollars and denying children the chance for a loving and stable home with qualified parents, but Gov. Henry McMaster (R) asked the Trump administration to give Miracle Hill and other South Carolina foster care providers a religious exemption so they can discriminate against prospective parents without risk of losing federal funding.
Yesterday, 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.
AU President and CEO Rachel Laser condemned the policy: “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. It is unconscionable that this administration would use government funds to discriminate against the very populations our laws are designed to protect.”
Although the policy only applies to South Carolina for now, it sets a dangerous nationwide precedent of elevating the beliefs of a government-funded agency over the best interests of the children in their care. Texas also has requested a similar waiver from the Department of Health and Human Services.
There are already nearly a half-million children in foster care nationwide, including 123,000 waiting for adoption – fewer than half of whom will find their forever home within a year. 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, and several states have passed laws permitting this discrimination.
The Trump administration cites the Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA) as justification for the policy – violating the original intent of RFRA and marking a drastic departure from long-standing federal protections that have applied to partnerships between the government and faith-based providers for decades.
Because Trump and his Religious Right allies continue to weaponize religious freedom, Congress should pass the Do No Harm Act (DNHA). The act 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,” said Maggie Garrett, AU’s vice president for public policy. “Passing this bill should be a priority for the 116th Congress.”