Federal Nondiscrimination Rules Threaten to Stop Faith-based Foster Care Agencies from Receiving Government Funding

The 80-year-old, multi-site Miracle Hill Ministries unashamedly shares the gospel with the neediest residents in South Carolina. In 1988, it expanded its homeless and addiction recovery ministries to include a state-licensed child placement agency that worked exclusively with Christian families.

Now, expanded nondiscrimination regulations enacted in the waning days of the Obama administration threaten the agency’s license. The dispute over how to apply the U.S. Health and Human Services (HHS) rules, enacted Jan. 11, 2017, opens a new front in the battle to save Biblically faithful foster care and adoption agencies nationwide.

Miracle Hill Ministries requires staff members, foster parents, and volunteers in positions of spiritual influence to be Christian and affirm the ministry’s missional doctrine, CEO Reid Lehman told me.

“That’s always been the case,” he said. “It applies across all of our ministries and programs. And it was never questioned by anybody, that we can recall, until about two years ago.”

The state Department of Social Services (DSS) distributes federal funds from HHS to child placing agencies (CPAs), including Miracle Hill, which is a nonprofit organization. In 2017, HHS expanded its grant-award regulations—which previously prohibited discrimination on the basis of race, color, and national origin—to prevent religious and other forms of discrimination, too. Lehman told the Greenville News that DSS contacted Miracle Hill in January 2017 to make sure it was complying with federal requirements—and that’s when the trouble started.

DSS threatened to withdraw Miracle Hill’s foster care license if it did not end its decadeslong policy of working only with families that shared the ministry’s Christian faith. In response, South Carolina Gov. Henry McMaster, a Republican, asked HHS to create an exemption for faith-based agencies in the state. In a letter sent in February, McMaster wrote HHS “cannot lawfully expand such statutory provisions through regulations.” Appealing to the Religious Freedom and Restoration Act and U.S. Supreme Court precedent in Trinity Lutheran v. Comer, McMaster argued the expanded nondiscrimination provisions “require CPAs to abandon their religious beliefs or forgo the available public licensure and funding.”

The governor also signed an executive order barring the state DSS from denying “licensure to faith-based CPAs solely on account of their religious identity or sincerely held religious beliefs.” The state legislature codified that language in a budget amendment in June.

“All child placement agencies receiving federal funds are bound by the federal regulation, but the state has limited power to decide what the regulation means in their state,” said Stephanie Curry, an attorney for the Family Policy Alliance, which supported legislation passed in Kansas and Oklahoma that provides religious liberty protections for Christian foster and adoption agencies.

Earlier this year, Miracle Hill’s policy drew the attention and ire of the Anti-Defamation League following news reports that the ministry had rejected a Jewish woman’s application to mentor children. Staff at Miracle Hill referred the woman to another local agency, where she took a volunteer position, Lehman said. Last week, the ADL wrote a letter to Roger Severino, director of the HHS Office for Civil Rights, asking it to reject McMaster’s request for a waiver for Miracle Hill and other faith-based child placement agencies.

ADL CEO Jonathan Greenblatt said Miracle Hill’s policy of working only with Christian foster parents “is both immoral and unconstitutional.” The ADL, which was founded in 1913 to combat anti-Semitism, claims its “Jewish values inform our work and the change we seek in the world,” but that work seeks to prevent other religious entities from operating according to their religious convictions if they receive federal money.

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SOURCE: WORLD Magazine, Bonnie Pritchett