South Carolina Gov. Henry McMaster has asked the U.S. District Court to protect the state’s right to partner with private, faith-based foster care agencies that help place children in foster care in response to the ACLU's lawsuit seeking to shut down religious foster care agencies.
“Over 3,800 of South Carolina’s children are currently in foster care and we need all the help we can get to see that they are placed in loving homes,” McMaster said in a statement after the filing, which follows ACLU’s lawsuit against the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services for working with faith-based agencies.
“This lawsuit is a shortsighted attack against every South Carolinian’s constitutionally-protected religious liberty,” the governor continued. “We will continue to fight against any attempt to stop our private partners from being able to help provide these critical services simply because they choose to do so in accordance with their faith.”
The state’s Department of Social Services works directly and indiscriminately with families seeking to foster and adopt children in crisis situations, explained the public-interest legal group Becket. South Carolina also partners with diverse private agencies that help recruit and retain more parents for foster children who need a safe place to live, and one of the agencies, Miracle Hill Ministries, chooses to partner with families who share its Christian faith.
“Upon learning about Miracle Hill’s foster parent requirements, the ACLU used social media to recruit individuals who did not share Miracle Hill’s faith to apply to foster with the agency,” the group said. “Rather than reach out to any other agency or the state of South Carolina, which supports and licenses foster families directly, the ACLU sued South Carolina and the federal government, alleging that allowing Miracle Hill to serve foster families violated the law.”
The group added that the law does not allow the government to exclude foster agencies because of their religious beliefs, pointing out that in Fulton v. Philadelphia, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled unanimously that the law protected Catholic Social Services’ right to maintain its religious beliefs and continue serving foster children in Philadelphia.
“Faith-based agencies are effective at placing children in loving homes, and the Supreme Court unanimously protected their rights,” said Lori Windham, vice president and senior counsel at Becket. “This attempt to shutter faith-based agencies means fewer choices for foster parents and fewer homes for kids. South Carolina decided it could do better, and it shouldn’t be hauled into court for doing the right thing.”
Although Miracle Hill has served South Carolina for decades with a Christ-centered approach, pressure began mounting in 2017 when the state's DSS began interpreting federal regulations in a way that would deem Miracle Hill’s practice of only accepting Christian foster parents as discriminatory.
Miracle Hill had garnered controversy over its refusal to work with non-Protestant, gay-identified or lesbian volunteers, while still receiving state funds.
In 2018, McMaster issued an Executive Order to protect faith-based organizations and to ensure South Carolina recognizes the constitutionally protected freedoms of these faith-based organizations.
Last November, the Biden administration revoked Trump-era waivers from federal nondiscrimination law granted to faith-based foster care providers in three states, including South Carolina.
The waivers exempted those organizations from nondiscrimination requirements imposed on recipients of federal grants mandating that “no person otherwise eligible will be excluded from participation in, denied the benefits of, or subjected to discrimination in the administration of HHS programs and services.”
The HHS contended that the waivers constituted a “blanket use of religious exemptions against any person or blank checks to allow discrimination against any persons, importantly including LGBTQ+ persons in taxpayer-funded programs.” HHS Secretary Xavier Becerra at the time justified the reversal of the “inappropriate, overly broad waivers” as necessary to ensure that the department is “best prepared to protect every American’s right to be free of discrimination.”
In a statement, the Southern Baptist Convention's Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission called the HHS' move “deeply troubling for faith-based organizations and people who serve communities in their states according to their religious beliefs.”