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Health Department grants foster care agency religious exemption license to discriminate

Miracle Hill came under fire last year for refusing service to a Jewish family.

South Carolina Gov. Henry McMaster (R). CREDIT:  Sean Rayford/Getty Images
South Carolina Gov. Henry McMaster (R). CREDIT: Sean Rayford/Getty Images

The Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) has issued a waiver to a South Carolina foster care agency, granting it a blanket license to discriminate based on its religious beliefs. Miracle Hill Ministries refuses to partner with any foster parents that do not share its protestant Christian beliefs, having previously turned away Jewish and same-sex couples.

When Beth Lesser and her husband moved to South Carolina, they completed training and background checks to become foster parents. Though Miracle Hill assisted with her training, it refused to invite her to work with the agency because she is Jewish. In 2017, she filed a complaint with the state Department of Social Services (DSS), which responded by downgrading Miracle Hill’s license to provide foster care services.

Gov. Henry McMaster (R) then came to Miracle Hill’s defense, assuring the agency he was going to work with federal officials to seek a waiver. Earlier this month, House committee chairs Robert Scott (D-VA) and Richard Neal (D-MA) urged HHS Secretary Alex Azar to deny the request, but this week the agency confirmed that Miracle Hill can refuse service however its religious beliefs dictate.

The waiver is an exception to a rule put in place by the Obama administration barring child placement agencies that receive public funding from discriminating. Despite the waiver, HHS has so far not taken the step of attempting to overturn the rule.

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Not only has Miracle Hill previously refused to serve Jewish families, it also refers same-sex couples to other agencies. According to its CEO, Reid Lehman, “God’s design for marriage is the legal joining of one man and one woman in a life-long covenant relationship.” The agency also requires employees to adhere to the same religious beliefs.

In several states, the debate over whether Christian adoption and foster care agencies should have to serve same-sex couples has prompted legislation granting them a “license to discriminate,” even if they receive state funding. Last year, for example, both Kansas and Oklahoma passed such laws within days of each other.

The ACLU is currently challenging Michigan’s version of the law on the basis that the state is allowing a religious agency to employ religious criteria to perform a public function in violation of the establishment clause of the First Amendment.

Last year, a Catholic adoption agency in Philadelphia challenged the city’s enforcement of its LGBTQ nondiscrimination protections, but did not prevail in court. Justice Brett Kavanaugh had not yet been seated on the Supreme Court, which was divided on providing the agency relief.

Conservatives argue that agencies that serve specific religious populations are able to recruit more foster and adoptive agencies. This doesn’t really make sense considering it means turning away many capable parents. It also suggests that some families are only taking in children for the opportunity to indoctrinate them with their beliefs, which would include their anti-LGBTQ beliefs.

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LGBTQ children are over-represented in the foster care system, so the more a state’s child placement services are controlled by anti-LGBTQ agencies, the more susceptible those children are to being placed with families that will reject them for who they are. Research has repeatedly shown that family acceptance is one of the most significant factors in promoting positive health outcomes in LGBTQ kids.

The HHS waiver follows the Trump administration’s repeated insistence that “religious freedom” is the highest priority when agencies respond to discrimination concerns — to the exception, in particular, of LGBTQ protections.