Aimee Maddonna, a South Carolina mother of three, knows firsthand the impact a loving family can have on children in foster care.
Aimee was raised alongside both biological and foster siblings because her father—who grew up in the system at a time when foster parents weren’t well-vetted—opened their home to hundreds of the most vulnerable kids in foster care. Aimee’s parents weren’t wealthy, but they made sure each and every child felt welcomed and created happy memories.
The desire to help children in need was passed onto Aimee Maddonna, and she and her own family began looking for opportunities to volunteer with a foster care agency near their home.
Miracle Hill Ministries, the largest taxpayer-funded foster care agency in South Carolina, stood out because of its prominent advertising. In another plus for the Maddonna family, the agency allows children to volunteer. Because Aimee’s children have special needs, she wanted the whole family to volunteer together, ensuring that they had a good connection before taking the next step of fostering a child in need.
Miracle Hill told Aimee her family was a great fit to help these children. Then the agency asked what church the Maddonnas attended. After learning they’re Catholic, Miracle Hill turned the family away, saying they only work with evangelical Protestants—not Catholics, not Jews, not people of any other faith or no faith at all.
Miracle Hill’s policies require any prospective parent to be “a born-again believer in the Lord Jesus Christ,” an “active participant in, and in good standing with, a Protestant church,” and “have a lifestyle that is free of sexual sin,” which Miracle Hill defines to include homosexuality.
The Maddonnas were devastated to face such blatant religious discrimination, but Aimee said she’s even more upset for the children denied loving families by Miracle Hill’s policies.
“It was difficult for my family, of course, but at the end of the day my kids still have parents,” Aimee says. “These foster children need and deserve to have someone looking out for them—and the government is taking that away. That isn’t right, it isn’t fair, and it isn’t necessary.”
Two Jewish women, Beth Lesser and Lydia Currie, have also reported that their request to help children through Miracle Hill was denied because of their religious beliefs. And there’s no doubt that humanists, atheists, and anyone who isn’t a born-again evangelical Protestant would be turned away by Miracle Hill as well.
The narrow religious beliefs of a government-funded agency should not take precedent over the best interests of America’s most vulnerable children or our fundamental principle of religious freedom.
Instead of denouncing Miracle Hill’s discriminatory practices, the Trump administration joined South Carolina Gov. Henry McMaster in doubling down and sanctioning the taxpayer-funded religious discrimination. In January the US Department of Health and Human Services issued a waiver allowing all government-funded foster care agencies in South Carolina to explicitly reject parents and volunteers who don’t share their religious beliefs; McMaster issued a similar order last year.
While this policy only applies to South Carolina for now, it sets a dangerous nationwide precedent that could have a significant and lasting impact on one of our most vulnerable populations. There are nearly 5,000 children in foster care in South Carolina, and nearly a half-million kids in care nationwide. By allowing agencies to turn away qualified parents, these kids will spend even longer in an overburdened system, instead of being welcomed into loving, stable homes.
On Aimee’s behalf, Americans United filed a federal lawsuit on February 15, 2019, to stop the federal government and South Carolina from authorizing and encouraging religious discrimination with taxpayer dollars. No child should be denied an opportunity for a loving and stable home when one is available to them, and no one should face religious discrimination from a publicly funded agency.
“At its heart, this case is about two of our country’s most sacred principles: defending religious freedom for all and protecting vulnerable children,” says Rachel Laser, AU’s president and CEO. “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.”
Aimee notes that if the foster care waiver is allowed to stand, it could be a stepping-stone to more government-sanctioned discrimination that hurts more and more people: “If you don’t protect the rights of everybody, it sets a precedent that will eventually touch on you.”
A version of this story first appeared at AU’s Wall of Separation Blog on February 15, 2019.