First, it was the baker, then the calligrapher, then the florist. Now Christian foster-care providers have taken center stage in the battle over where religious freedom ends and discrimination begins.
A phalanx of left-of-center groups, led by the American Civil Liberties Union and Human Rights Campaign, erupted last week after Miracle Hill Ministries received a federal waiver to continue offering services despite only working with foster couples that adhere to traditional Christian beliefs.
That means Miracle Hill does not accept same-sex couples. The ministry based in Greenville, South Carolina, does offer to connect prospective foster parents who disagree with its principles to the state Department of Social Services or one of the state’s 20 other private child-placement agencies.
“Unfortunately, it’s being framed as though we hate other people, and that is the farthest thing from the truth,” said Sandra Furnell, marketing and communications director for Miracle Hill.
As far as critics are concerned, however, Miracle Hill is turning its back on needy foster children by refusing to work with all otherwise qualified foster parents despite receiving about $600,000 annually in state and federal funding.
“Even though our first and primary concern is the number of children that are being denied homes because of this, I think it’s important to remember that this is not something that government funds should cover,” said Denise Brogan-Kator, chief policy officer at Family Equality Council. “I think it imposes a dignitary harm on people of different faiths, or no faith.”
Maggie Siddiqi, the Center for American Progress’s Faith and Progressive Policy Initiative, said in a statement that the decision “weaponizes our nation’s right to religious freedom in order to justify discrimination in the foster care system, depriving children of welcoming homes.”
Then again, Miracle Hill doesn’t just wait for potential foster parents to show up at the door — the ministry actively recruits couples from the local Christian community. Miracle Hill accounts for about 15 percent of the non-therapeutic placements in South Carolina.
“If we were a sole provider in the state of the South Carolina, then I think there would be an argument, but we’re not,” said Ms. Furnell. “We’re actively adding to the pool of foster parents. We specialize in recruiting Protestant Christian foster parents, so we’re helping the DSS by our efforts. And they consider us a valuable partner.”
About four years ago, she said, DSS urged Miracle Hill to increase its recruiting as it grappled with a foster-care crisis. In 2016, the state settled a lawsuit by agreeing to a number of child-welfare reforms, including reducing the number of children in institutions and group homes.
At that point, Miracle Hill served about 100 foster families and took no federal funding. Since then, the number of families has grown to about 240.
“When DSS said, ‘Hey, we would love for you to step up your recruitment,’ we said, ‘Well, we’d be glad to do that, but we only have so much funding, so if you really need the help, if we can have a little bit of support, we’d be happy to continue to increase our recruitment efforts,’” said Ms. Furnell. “After we were able to do that, we were able to double our foster families that we have.”
In other words, she said, “by us existing, we’re not preventing anyone from fostering. It’s being able to have the options.”
Why not just accept all comers? “We’re not saying these other groups and other people shouldn’t foster. We’re not saying that at all,” said Ms. Furnell.
“We’re saying we are a Christian ministry, and our mission is to share the gospel of Jesus Christ, and we can’t do that with people who don’t believe in Jesus Christ,” she said. “People who partner with us have to share the mission.”
She added that Miracle Hill’s foster families take in children of all religious backgrounds and that DSS requires foster parents to respect the child’s faith.
“It’s really important to note as well that we serve all children. It does not matter whether they have Christian, Muslim, Hindu, Jewish [backgrounds],” Ms. Furnell said. “If DSS wants to place one of those children with our families, they can do so. It’s entirely up to DSS as to where those children go.”
Last week, the Health and Human Services Department granted a waiver to South Carolina exempting it from an eleventh-hour Obama-era rule banning child-welfare contractors from discriminating on the basis of religion or sexual orientation.
As a result, Miracle Hill won back its state license, which had been placed on provisional status, but the 81-year-old religious non-profit has also been deluged with hate emails and phone calls, including an arson threat.
There’s also the possibility of a lawsuit. Leslie Cooper, the ACLU LGBT and HIV Project deputy director, said on a press call that her organization is considering legal action in reaction to the HHS waiver.
“[T]he Trump administration has allowed government-contracted child welfare agencies in the state to turn away would-be foster and adoptive parents because they do not share the agency’s religious beliefs,” said Ms. Cooper in a Friday post. “It’s a terrible decision that will only hurt the children these child welfare programs were created to help while incentivizing other states to follow South Carolina’s bad example.”
Eight states have passed laws in recent years allowing religious exemptions for faith-based foster-care and adoption services, and at least one state, Michigan, has been hit with a lawsuit arguing that private agencies that receive public funding cannot refuse prospective parents on religious grounds.
Meanwhile, a Texas same-sex couple sued the Health and Human Services Department and the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops last year after Catholic Charities declined to work with them to foster a refugee child on religious grounds.
In Philadelphia, Catholic Social Services filed a religious-discrimination lawsuit last year after the city severed its contract over the agency’s stance against working with same-sex couples.
Supporters argued that clamping down on faith-based child-placement services will only make it more difficult to find homes for foster kids. In South Carolina, for example, there are about 4,000 such children in need of foster homes.
“No child-welfare provider should be prevented from serving children and families because the government doesn’t like their religious beliefs,” said Alliance Defending Freedom legal counsel Kellie Fiedorek. “This is both unlawful and unjust. We’re grateful that HHS and South Carolina alike are taking steps to keep kids first.”