The U.S. Department of Health & Human Services is considering a request from South Carolina to exempt faith-based, government-funded child welfare providers from federal non-discrimination laws. On Monday, November 19, Interfaith Alliance joined 75 national, state, and local organizations in urging Sec. Alex Azar to reject the request as a gross misinterpretation of religious freedom and a violation of child welfare law, policy, and professional standards.

The dispute centers around a Christian organization, Miracle Hill Ministries, which receives federal funding to place children with foster families in the northern part of the state. As one of the largest foster care agencies in the state, Miracle Hill plays a critical role in fulfilling the government’s obligation to provide safe, permanent homes for youth in the child welfare system.

Miracle Hill Ministries receives taxpayer funding for their foster care program, but requires all prospective parents to be “born-again believer[s] in the Lord Jesus Christ” and actively participate in a Protestant church.
Despite a persistent need for short-term and permanent homes for over 4,500 children in state custody, Miracle Hill uses a set of religious criteria that are extremely stringent and exclude a wide variety of applicants. Miracle Hill’s criteria would even deem family members like a Catholic grandparent, an unmarried cousin living with a partner, or a lesbian aunt as unacceptable foster or adoptive parents.

The agency explicitly states on its website that it will only work with families who “have a lifestyle that is free of sexual sin” and are active participants of a Protestant church. Applicants must sign a doctrinal statement, stating that they are “a born-again believer in the Lord Jesus Christ,” thereby excluding all non-Protestants and non-churchgoers and a huge swath of the faith community. Miracle Hill’s practices made headlines earlier this year, when a Jewish couple was turned away from serving as mentors to foster children because of their religion.

In February, the Department of Social Services sent Miracle Hill a letter warning the agency that they were jeopardizing their eligibility for federal funding. The Establishment Clause of the First Amendment bars the government from  providing or refusing to provide government services based on religious criteria. The HHS Equal Treatment regulations also prohibit discrimination against beneficiaries of federal programs on the basis of religion or religious belief. The HHS Grants Rule expressly prohibits federally funded providers from engaging in discrimination against children and families, including on the basis of religion, sex, sexual orientation, or gender identity.

But South Carolina’s Governor Henry McMaster personally intervened on Miracle Hill’s behalf, seeking an exemption from federal nondiscrimination laws for all faith-based providers in the state. He also issued an executive order exempting faith-based child protection agencies from state laws designed to protect against religious discrimination.

If HHS approves South Carolina’s request, it would be the first waiver of its kind and could open the door to an even wider array of taxpayer-funded discrimination in the name of religion. Nine other states have already passed laws that permit child welfare providers to use religious criteria to reject potential foster and adoptive parents, exacerbating a national foster care crisis as more and more children enter the system due to the opioid epidemic.

Members of Congress have also tried to create exemptions by inserting language into large appropriations bills. Earlier this year, Interfaith Alliance joined more than 200 national, state, and local organizations in opposing the Aderholt Amendment which would have allowed agencies to use a religious litmus test to determine which families or children to serve, and which services to provide, while still receiving federal tax dollars.

While the Aderholt Amendment did not become law, we fully expect this issue to crop up in other states across the country. It’s one of the many reasons that Interfaith Alliance is a proud member of the Every Child Deserves a Family Campaign, which fights “license to discriminate” bills on the state and federal level and builds support for the Every Child Deserves a Family Act, a federal bill prohibiting child welfare agencies that receive taxpayer funds from discriminating against LGBTQ youth or prospective foster and adoptive parents.

Learn about how religious exemption laws harm foster youth and consider joining the Every Child Deserves a Family Campaign to ensure that religion is never used to prevent children’s access to loving, stable, permanent homes.