Last month, the Trump administration issued a waiver allowing a South Carolina foster care agency to discriminate in accordance with its Protestant religious beliefs. Now, a Catholic foster care parent is challenging the exemption after the agency discriminated against her because of her faith.
In a lawsuit filed by Americans United for Separation of Church and State last week, Aimee Maddonna argues that this license to discriminate violates the Establishment Clause and denies her equal protection under the law.
Miracle Hill Ministries is the largest foster care agency in South Carolina, but it only works with families that share its conservative evangelical Christian beliefs. It came under fire in 2017 when it refused to work with a Jewish family, prompting a complaint and a review of the agency’s license. But Gov. Henry McMaster (R) came to Miracle Hill’s defense, issuing an executive order exempting it from state-level nondiscrimination protections and requesting a similar waiver from the federal government. The Department of Health and Human Services granted that waiver at the end of January.
Maddonna had been raised in a home alongside foster children, and she wanted to pay that service forward by having her family volunteer with foster children and by someday welcoming foster children into her own home. She learned about Miracle Hill through a homeschooling group and spent several weeks corresponding with the agency about how her family could volunteer. But the final question Miracle Hill asked her was for a church reference, and she provided her Catholic parish.
“Mrs. Maddonna was shocked then to learn that this reference would not be accepted, and that her family’s volunteering was no longer welcome,” the complaint recounts. “Later, the Director of Development for Miracle Hill informed Mrs. Maddonna that only Christians who attended the right type of Protestant church were permitted to volunteer and work with the children that the South Carolina Department of Social Services had placed in the organization’s care.”
The suit takes direct aim at the concept of “religious freedom” often used to prop up conservatives’ discrimination against LGBTQ people and other groups. “Defendants’ actions are both irrational and illegitimate,” it explains. “The government ostensibly protects religious freedom by expressly authorizing and funding religious discrimination.”
Miracle Hill is even violating its own foster care manual, which states, “In accordance with Federal and State laws and South Carolina Department of Social Services (SCDSS) policy, this agency and contracted providers for foster care and adoption services are prohibited from discriminating on the basis of race, color, national origin, sex, age, religion, political beliefs or disability.”
South Carolina has seen a spike in the number of children in foster care over the past decade, while the percentage of foster care home placements has remained flat. Miracle Hill happens to be in the region of the state with the most children in foster care.
Refusing to work with non-evangelical families does little for the many children who need homes. Moreover, providing them only one religious option may not be in their best interest and may itself violate the law. South Carolina law requires that foster children receive religious education “in accordance with the expressed wishes of the child’s natural parents.” Thus, an agency that assists children from Catholic families must ensure they continue to receive Catholic education. The religious exemptions, however, allow agencies like Miracle Hill to “effectively terminate biological parents’ rights to direct their children’s religious upbringing while those children are in the care of the child-placement agency or a foster family,” the suit explains.
The complaint also notes that because Miracle Hill has explicitly anti-LGBTQ policies and expects families to agree with them, this could also have a detrimental impact on LGBTQ youth, who are over-represented in foster care systems.
“It is unconscionable — and unconstitutional — that an amazing mother like Aimee Maddonna and her loving family are barred from helping children in need because they are the ‘wrong’ religion,” said Americans United CEO Rachel Laser in a statement. “We will not allow this country to return to the days of ‘no Catholics or Jews allowed.’”
Maddonna described it as “demoralizing to hear we are not good enough because we aren’t the right kind of Christians.” She doesn’t think it fair that her own children have parents while other kids don’t.
“These foster children need and deserve to have someone looking out for them — and the government is taking that away,” she said. “That isn’t right, it isn’t fair, and it isn’t necessary.”
This is the second major lawsuit challenging a “license to discriminate” for adoption agencies. The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) is currently representing a pair of same-sex couples who are challenging Michigan’s law after similarly being refused service at faith-based agencies. Anti-LGBTQ groups have made clear that passing more such laws in other states is a top lobbying priority.
President Trump has made clear he supports their discriminatory efforts. In addition to the South Carolina waiver, Trump openly stated at the National Prayer Breakfast this month, “My administration is working to ensure that faith-based adoption agencies are able to help vulnerable children find their forever families while following their deeply held beliefs.” He even lauded a family that was working with a Michigan adoption agency to defend the state’s discriminatory law in court.
But Maddonna’s suit makes a simple case against offering special privileges to religious agencies operating with taxpayer funding: “It is never acceptable to use state or federal funds to discriminate based on religion.”