The Health and Human Services Department touched off a firestorm over religious freedom and discrimination Wednesday after granting South Carolina an exemption aimed at protecting faith-based foster-care providers.
South Carolina Gov. Henry McMaster had requested the waiver after the Obama administration adopted regulations in its last days barring child-welfare groups that receive federal funding from discriminating based on religion and sexual orientation.
The regulations threatened the work of Miracle Hill Ministries in Greenville, South Carolina, one of the state’s largest social-services providers, which seeks to place foster children from Christian families with Christian foster parents.
Lynn Johnson, assistant HHS secretary, said the exemption was intended to “protect religious freedom and preserve high-quality foster care placement options for children.”
“It protects minors who are in need of as many options as possible for being placed in loving foster families,” said Ms. Johnson in a statement. “The government should not be in the business of forcing foster care providers to close their doors because of their faith. Religious freedom is a fundamental human right.”
The move was cheered by religious-liberty advocates but decried by Democrats and liberal groups like the Human Rights Campaign, which accused the administration of “opening the door to federally funded discrimination justified by religious belief.”
Jeff Ayers, executive director of SC Equality, said that Miracle Hill “receives millions in state and federal dollars” even though it “continues to discriminate against LGBT families wanting to adopt children.”
“I have stood against discrimination my entire career, and this waiver is unlawful discrimination based on religion and sexual orientation,” said House Majority Whip James Clyburn. “The real tragedy of this situation is that federal funding is being used to keep children out of loving homes.”
Meanwhile, Republicans said the exemption would expand options for foster children by allowing organizations like Miracle Hill to keep their licenses.
“I am pleased to see HHS protect the religious beliefs of child welfare agencies across South Carolina today,” said Sen. James Lankford, Oklahoma Republican. “The government should not tell American organizations that the same faith that drives them to help vulnerable children and families also disqualifies them from providing those services.”
Sen. Tim Scott, South Carolina Republican, called it a “great day for South Carolina, religious liberty, and all foster-care kids across the Palmetto State.”
“We should ensure that federal regulations do not discriminate against faith-based organizations like South Carolina’s Miracle Hill, that only seek to give thousands of children across our state a family and a place to call home,” he said.
Miracle Hill president and CEO Reid Lehman told the Greenville [S.C.] News that the group has been hit with hate mail and an arson threat since the waiver request.
“We are deeply gratified by this decision, which allows Miracle Hill Foster Care to keep its license and continue serving nearly 200 foster children and more than 230 foster families,” Mr. Lehman said in a statement. “It’s always been about the license, our right to exist.”
While eight states have passed laws allowing child-welfare providers to operate in accordance with their religious beliefs, Wednesday’s waiver comes as the first time the federal government has intervened on behalf of a state, according to the American Civil Liberties Union.
“There are more than 400,000 children in foster care around the country, and today the Trump administration has turned its back on each of them,” said Leslie Cooper, deputy director of the ACLU’s LGBT & HIV Project.
Texas has also put in a request for an exemption, prompting the ACLU to call on Congress to “stop the waiver to South Carolina from setting off a domino effect.”
Rep. Joe Cunningham, South Carolina Democrat, said: “We should not be in the position of denying families that want to help vulnerable children based on criteria that in no way impacts their ability to be a loving parent or mentor.”
An 81-year-old ministry that also offers food, shelter and addiction-recovery services, Miracle Hill said it refers prospective foster parents who don’t meet its requirements to other providers, adding, “We want folks like that to find a good place to serve.”
“[W]hile people who don’t embrace our Christian faith obviously wouldn’t be a good fit for Christian leadership roles at Miracle Hill, such as in our foster-care and mentoring programs, we will always be happy to help connect them to partner organizations where they can serve in those kinds of roles,” said the group.
More than 4,000 children in South Carolina are in foster care, according to Miracle Hill, and another 1,000 new foster homes are needed.
“And, thankfully, there are lots of good organizations in the Upstate we can recommend—in part because we work with them regularly in a variety of ways to serve our Upstate community together!” said the Miracle Hill statement.
The HRC, ACLU and other groups are scheduled to hold Thursday a phone-in press conference on the decision.