CHURCH & STATE | Denied the Right to Care In South Carolina, “Religious Freedom” Has Become a Vehicle for Discrimination

Aimee Maddonna

Aimee Maddonna is a Catholic woman in Simpsonville, South Carolina, who wants to volunteer to help children in foster care.

Maddonna would seem to be the perfect person to help out kids in need. She and her husband have experience with three young children of their own. Her father, who grew up in the foster care system, had opened his home to foster kids, so Aimee was familiar with foster care and grew up surrounded by the honorary brothers and sisters her parents were determined to help.

But a strange thing happened when Maddonna approached Miracle Hill Ministries, the largest taxpayer-funded foster care agency in South Carolina: she and her family were turned away for no other reason than their religion. Miracle Hill says it will work only with evangelical Protestants.

Maddonna wasn’t the only one frozen out by Miracle Hill. Beth Lesser and Lydia Currie, both of whom are Jewish, wanted to help youngsters in foster care as well—and were sent packing for being the “wrong” religion.

“I think often about the other older children who were waiting for families, the ones in Miracle Hill institutions whom we could have loved if we had not been rejected because of our faith,” Currie 
wrote in a poignant op-ed for the Jewish Telegraphic Agency. “I wonder what happened to them—and whether they are still waiting.”

If Miracle Hill—which, I remind you, is taxpayer-funded and operates under a contract with the state to provide foster care and adoption services—won’t work with Catholics and Jews, what are the chances a humanist who wants to care for foster children or adopt a child is going to get a friendly reception there? Zilch. This ministry has essentially decided that while it’s happy to rake in public funds, it has no interest in actually serving all of the public.

In a sane world, Miracle Hill would be told to work with everyone or lose its tax funding. But this is not a sane world. This is the world of President Donald Trump, who kowtows constantly to the religious right. Thus, officials at Miracle Hill, backed by South Carolina Gov. Henry McMaster, asked the US Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) for a special waiver to allow them to continue discriminating. It was duly granted.

Miracle Hill—and taxpayer-supported, religiously affiliated foster care and adoption agencies in other parts of the country—are increasingly arguing that they have a “religious freedom” right to reject certain people no matter how qualified those folks may be, simply because they are the “wrong” religion or live in a way that fundamentalist Christians deem to be “immoral.”

This problem has surfaced in other states, where legislation has been passed or is pending that would actually codify the so-called “right” of religious agencies to accept tax support yet still deny services to entire classes of people.

To no one’s surprise, there has been a backlash. In Michigan, Kristy and Dana Dumont, a same-sex couple, sued the state Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) after they were turned away by two religious child placement agencies that refused to work with them, even though the agencies were taxpayer-funded and held contracts with the state.

Michigan Attorney General Dana Nessel recently agreed to settle the case, which was brought by the American Civil Liberties Union. Under the terms of the settlement, Michigan officials have agreed to end contracts with agencies that discriminate.

“Discrimination in the provision of foster care case management and adoption services is illegal, no matter the rationale,” Nessel said in a press statement. “Limiting the opportunity for a child to be adopted or fostered by a loving home not only goes against the state’s goal of finding a home for every child, it is a direct violation of the contract every child placing agency enters into with the state.”

I should note that the settlement came about largely because of political changes in Michigan. Former Attorney General Bill Schuette, a Republican, argued that child placement agencies should have the right to discriminate, even when acting on behalf of the state. But Nessel, a Democrat who was elected last year, disagreed. Elections do have consequences.

In another case, Fatma Marouf and Bryn Esplin, two Texas women who are married, sued HHS after they were denied the opportunity to foster children in a refugee program. A federally funded child placement agency run by Catholic Charities of Fort Worth told the two that they were rejected because they don’t “mirror the holy family.” (The Lambda Legal Defense and Education Fund and Americans United for the Separation of Church and State are representing the couple.)

Back in South Carolina, Americans United is suing HHS, McMaster, and the state Department of Social Services on Maddonna’s behalf. The lawsuit, Maddonna v. US Dept. of Health and Human Services, asserts that Miracle Hill is engaging in discrimination on the basis of religious identity in violation of federal law.

AU’s legal complaint also asserts that this type of discrimination is a violation of basic decency. It’s an important point. When agencies like Miracle Hill slam the door on anyone who’s not a conservative, evangelical, Protestant Christian, they don’t just discriminate against potential foster parents, they harm the children in their care as well.

There are almost 5,000 children in foster care in South Carolina, 
and nearly a half-million kids in this type of care nationwide. Men and women who are Catholics, liberal Protestants, Jews, humanists, Wiccans, Hindus, Buddhists, Muslims, unaffiliated, etc. may be eager to love and care for these children—but Miracle Hill isn’t interested in even talking to these people. They’re excluded from the get-go, no matter what they may have to offer.

Thus, the ministry’s policy of discrimination dramatically reduces the pool of eligible loving families. How can that possibly be good for children in need? It’s not—and the fact that it’s being done under the banner of “religious freedom” is appalling.

Religious freedom—the real kind, not the fake version being peddled by the far right these days—is precious and must be defended. It encompasses your right to believe, or not, as guided by conscience. It protects your right to spread your views on your own time with your own dime and your right to meet with like-minded people for fellowship and communion.

But religious freedom is not a cudgel to wield against others, to treat them like second-class citizens and deny them access to goods and services. A warped view of religious freedom has led us to a place where an agency like Miracle Hill can accept tax money and a charge to operate on behalf of the government yet erect a sign (metaphorical or real) that reads, “Be a Conservative Evangelical Christian or Be Gone.”

The religious right wants to press religious freedom into the shabby service of discrimination. We hope to fix that through litigation. But that’s the surface problem. The underlying issue is the far right’s ongoing attempt to redefine religious freedom in America and make it something it was never intended to be—a device to control others, relegate them to second-class citizenship, and strip away their basic rights and dignity.

If we can fix that, a lot of the problems we’re currently facing will disappear—and Aimee Maddonna will be able to offer love and care to children who desperately need it.