Re­li­gious-bias rule is new haz­ard for U.S. foster pro­grams

The Prince George Citizen - - Religion - Laura MECKLER

The Mir­a­cle Hill Min­istries in Greenville, S.C., makes clear from the start that only Chris­tian par­ents need ap­ply for its foster-care pro­gram. On its forms, can­di­dates are asked to of­fer per­sonal tes­ti­mony of their faith or sal­va­tion. “Our ex­is­tence and iden­tity is tied to our faith in God and be­lief in Je­sus Christ,” said Reid Lehman, Mir­a­cle Hill’s pres­i­dent and CEO. He said the min­istry would drop out of the foster-care pro­gram rather than work with par­ents who aren’t Chris­tian.

That pol­icy, in place for 30 years, runs counter to an Obama-era reg­u­la­tion bar­ring re­li­gious dis­crim­i­na­tion in the fed­er­ally funded foster-care pro­gram. Now, with Mir­a­cle Hill’s fund­ing threat­ened, the Trump ad­min­is­tra­tion is be­ing asked by the gover­nor of South Carolina to let Mir­a­cle Hill par­tic­i­pate any­way.

It’s the lat­est clash in a long-run­ning de­bate over re­li­gious free­dom and gov­ern­ment so­cial ser­vices, as three suc­ces­sive ad­min­is­tra­tions have con­sid­ered how much re­li­gion is too much re­li­gion when agen­cies are col­lect­ing tax­payer funds. The Trump ad­min­is­tra­tion’s re­sponse in the South Carolina case will sig­nal whether it will ad­here to mod­est lim­its im­posed by the Bush and Obama ad­min­is­tra­tions or whether it will al­low re­li­gious en­ti­ties a freer hand.

It also rep­re­sents a test of the Obama pol­icy, put into place in the fi­nal days of that ad­min­is­tra­tion. The fact that the Trump ad­min­is­tra­tion has yet to give South Carolina an an­swer sug­gests that the ques­tion may be a dif­fi­cult one even for some con­ser­va­tives.

In Oc­to­ber 2017, Jeff Ses­sions, at­tor­ney gen­eral at the time, sig­naled the Trump ad­min­is­tra­tion’s view on these is­sues when he re­leased sweep­ing guid­ance on re­li­gious free­dom, in­clud­ing an ad­mo­ni­tion that fed­eral grants can­not re­quire re­li­gious groups to al­ter their char­ac­ter.

The is­sue is play­ing out in the states as well. South Carolina has told Mir­a­cle Hill its li­cense is in jeop­ardy, con­tend­ing that it is vi­o­lat­ing state and fed­eral pol­icy. In other states, sim­i­lar dis­putes are tied to poli­cies re­gard­ing sex­ual ori­en­ta­tion.

Philadel­phia cut off Catholic So­cial Ser­vices from its foster-care pro­gram af­ter learn­ing that the agency would not li­cense same-sex cou­ples. Catholic So­cial Ser­vices is chal­leng­ing the de­ci­sion in court.

In Michi­gan, the Amer­i­can Civil Lib­er­ties Union is su­ing the state over its pol­icy of con­tract­ing with child-place­ment agen­cies that use re­li­gious cri­te­ria to turn away gay and les­bian cou­ples who wish to be foster or adop­tive par­ents.

“States have an obli­ga­tion to care for chil­dren in the pub­lic child-wel­fare sys­tem,” said Les­lie Cooper, an ACLU at­tor­ney.

“When they hire agen­cies to care for them... they should not be us­ing re­li­gious cri­te­ria to deny chil­dren ac­cess to fam­i­lies that they des­per­ately need.”

In South Carolina, Mir­a­cle Hill was ex­pect­ing to have been given the OK by now. Trump ad­min­is­tra­tion of­fi­cials have sig­naled that they are sym­pa­thetic to its cause, yet the de­ci­sion has been pend­ing for months.

Founded in 1937, Mir­a­cle Hill runs sev­eral so­cial ser­vice pro­grams, all in­fused with re­li­gion. It will hire only Chris­tians, whether the job is pro­gram­ming, cut­ting the grass – or be­ing a foster par­ent.

A spokes­woman for the state so­cial ser­vices agency said there are 11 child-place­ment agen­cies in South Carolina with re­li­gious af­fil­i­a­tions, but Mir­a­cle Hill is the only one that in­sists foster par­ents share its faith.

Lehman, the Mir­a­cle Hill pres­i­dent, said par­ents are ex­pected to serve as role mod­els for the chil­dren in their care. “The chil­dren will see what a life ded­i­cated to pro­claim­ing the love of God is about,” he said.

The group re­ceived nearly $600,000 in state and fed­eral money in the last fis­cal year to sup­port foster-care fam­i­lies, about half of its to­tal costs.

The group’s re­li­gious re­quire­ments ap­pear to have come to the at­ten­tion of the South Carolina De­part­ment of So­cial Ser­vices af­ter Beth Lesser, who is Jewish, and her hus­band were turned away by Mir­a­cle Hill.

“I was the only Jewish per­son there,” Lesser told the For­ward, a news­pa­per that cov­ers is­sues of in­ter­est to Amer­i­can Jews.

“It was hu­mil­i­at­ing to be told es­sen­tially Chris­tians over here, Jews over there.”

A spokes­woman for the De­part­ment of So­cial Ser­vices would say only that it acted af­ter be­com­ing aware that Mir­a­cle Hill re­quired a signed state­ment of faith to par­tic­i­pate in the pro­gram.

In Jan­uary 2018, the de­part­ment wrote to Mir­a­cle Hill, stat­ing that its Chris­tian­sonly pol­icy ran afoul of a fed­eral reg­u­la­tion fi­nal­ized by the De­part­ment of Health and Hu­man Ser­vices in the clos­ing days of the Obama ad­min­is­tra­tion. That reg­u­la­tion was spurred by com­plaints about dis­crim­i­na­tion against po­ten­tial foster par­ents on the grounds of re­li­gion and, sep­a­rately, sex­ual ori­en­ta­tion, ac­cord­ing to one per­son in­volved. The rules bar such dis­crim­i­na­tion in all HHS pro­grams.

The South Carolina agency told Mir­a­cle Hill that its pol­icy also runs counter to state rules that bar dis­crim­i­na­tion based on re­li­gion. In its let­ter, the de­part­ment noted that Mir­a­cle Hill’s writ­ten pol­icy says it will abide by these state and fed­eral rules.

“The De­part­ment’s re­quest is that Mir­a­cle Hill com­ply with its own pol­icy sub­mit­ted for li­cen­sure,” a state of­fi­cial said in a Jan­uary 2018 let­ter to the group. She said its li­cense was be­ing down­graded to tem­po­rary and warned the tem­po­rary li­cense would be valid for no longer than six months. “Fail­ure to ad­dress these con­cerns will re­sult in the ex­pi­ra­tion of Mir­a­cle Hill’s li­cense as a Child Plac­ing Agency.”

But Mir­a­cle Hill’s cause was soon taken up by South Carolina Gov. Henry McMaster, a Repub­li­can, who asked the HHS for a waiver from the nondis­crim­i­na­tion rules. McMaster ar­gued that the reg­u­la­tion was un­law­ful and vi­o­lates the group’s con­sti­tu­tional rights.

The reg­u­la­tion, he wrote, ef­fec­tively re­quires child place­ment agen­cies such as Mir­a­cle Hill to “aban­don their re­li­gious be­liefs or forgo the avail­able pub­lic li­cen­sure and fund­ing.”

He also per­suaded the Leg­is­la­ture to over­ride the nondis­crim­i­na­tion pro­vi­sions set by the De­part­ment of So­cial Ser­vices.

In March, Steve Wag­ner, who runs the HHS divi­sion that over­sees foster care, wrote to a McMaster aide that he was “push­ing this hard,” ac­cord­ing to emails re­ceived by the ACLU through a records re­quest. He suggested that fi­nal ap­proval could come later that month.

WASH­ING­TON POST PHOTO BY JA­COB BIBA

A copy of the Bi­ble rests on a con­fer­ence room ta­ble at Mir­a­cle Hill Min­istries in Greenville, S.C.

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