Discrimination in Social Services

Prospective Foster Parents Urge Supreme Court To Prevent Taxpayer-Funded Foster Care Agencies From Engaging In Religious Discrimination

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Six prospective foster parents today urged the U.S. Supreme Court to affirm that taxpayer-funded, government-contracted foster care agencies don’t have the right to deny children loving homes by engaging in religious discrimination against prospective parents.

In an amicus brief filed today by Americans United for Separation of Church and State on their behalf, the women shared their devastating experiences of contacting child-placement agencies in hopes of helping vulnerable children – only to be turned away because they couldn’t pass the religious litmus tests of the agencies hired by the government to find homes for those children.

The brief was filed in Fulton v. City of Philadelphia, a case on the Supreme Court’s fall docket involving a taxpayer-funded foster care agency that wants the court to create a constitutional right to misuse religious freedom and discriminate against qualified families because they are LGBTQ, the “wrong” religion, don’t go to the right kind of church or don’t follow other religious tenets of the agency.

These families described their heartache at knowing that children were being delayed or denied the opportunity to find safe, loving homes due to discriminatory practices by agencies in South Carolina and Texas.

Aimee Maddonna: A mother of three from Simpsonville, S.C., Maddonna wanted to continue a family tradition of helping foster children. She reached out to Miracle Hill Ministries, a prominent, taxpayer-funded agency in her region. Miracle Hill representatives said that her family would be a perfect fit – until the agency learned the Maddonnas are Catholic. Miracle Hill rejected the Maddonnas because they aren’t evangelical Protestants. 

“It was demoralizing to hear that we are not good enough because we aren’t the right kind of Christians,” Maddonna told the court. “It was difficult for my family, of course, but at the end of the day my kids still have parents. 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 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.”

Lydia Currie: Currie, who now lives in Philadelphia with two adopted children, tried to become a foster-adoptive parent for older children in institutional care when she lived in Greenville, S.C. The state Department of Social Services recommended that Currie apply to foster children through government contractor Miracle Hill Ministries. But as soon as she read Miracle Hill’s application, Currie, who is Jewish, knew she would be turned away because it requested a letter of reference from a “Bible-believing” church and a “personal testimony about our relationship with Jesus Christ.”

“The message could not have been clearer. And when somebody tells you that a hurting child is better off at their orphanage than living in your Jewish home, it doesn’t make you feel good about yourself,” Currie told the court. “There is nothing wrong with being a religious child-welfare advocate – I am one myself. … [But] when a child needs shelter and support and a chance to begin healing, the adults who control the child’s immediate future – as government agents – cannot have a separate agenda that overrides the child’s welfare.”

Eden Rogers and Brandy Welch: Rogers and Welch are a married, same-sex couple who live near Greenville, S.C., with their two daughters. Yearning to grow their family, they applied to foster children through Miracle Hill Ministries. They were denied because they are a same-sex couple and are of the Unitarian Universalist faith. Miracle Hill told them that their religious beliefs did not align with the agency’s, so they couldn’t foster children – but Miracle Hill might allow them to volunteer by sorting clothes at the ministry’s thrift store or at some other task where they would not be in “positions of spiritual responsibility or influence” over children.

“We work hard to raise our own two girls in a loving and stable home. Faith is a part of our family life, so it is hurtful and insulting to us that Miracle Hill’s religious view of what a family must look like deprives foster children of a nurturing, supportive home,” the couple told the court. They also noted that Miracle Hill is denying LGBTQ children placed in the agency’s care even the chance at being fostered or adopted by an LGBTQ family. “I think it’s really important to be able to show them that family is not just about biology,” Rogers said. “We can create our own families, and we can love just as hard as biological families.”

Fatma Marouf and Bryn Esplin: Marouf and Esplin are a married, same-sex couple from Fort Worth, Texas. Catholic Charities Fort Worth, which provides foster care on behalf of the government for unaccompanied refugee children, approached Marouf about a partnership with the Immigrant Rights Clinic that she directs at Texas A&M School of Law. After learning about the program, Marouf and Esplin felt compelled to help these children and inquired about fostering. But even as Catholic Charities sought to work with Marouf professionally, the agency said she and her wife could not be foster parents because, as a same-sex couple, they didn’t “mirror the holy family” as the agency requires.

“It was so disappointing and hurtful to be told that we don’t qualify to foster refugee children simply because of who we are and who we love,” Marouf told the court. “For us, it really came as a surprise, because we felt like we were approaching a government program. It never even occurred to me that they would discriminate against us based on our sexual orientation.” Esplin told the court, “I was really upset that such an important job had been handed over to an agency that unilaterally defines ‘best interest’ according to its own values.”

In addition to providing details of the women’s experiences, the brief explains that just as it would be unconstitutional for government to engage in religious discrimination, it is equally unconstitutional for government to allow the contractors and grantees it selects and funds to discriminate in the delivery of government services.

“When it comes to balancing the welfare of children in need of loving homes with the interests of government contractors paid to work with the foster parents who will provide those homes, there is no contest,” said Americans United Legal Director Richard B. Katskee. “The Supreme Court should affirm that the Constitution’s promise of religious freedom does not confer a right to harm others. Religious freedom is a fundamental American value. So is protecting vulnerable children. One should not come at the expense of the other.”

The amicus brief is available here.

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

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

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