GREENVILLE, S.C. (WIS) - LGBT advocates have filed a lawsuit against the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) and the State of South Carolina on behalf of a lesbian couple who were discriminated against by a government foster care agency for failing to meet it’s religious criteria.
Lambda Legal, the ACLU, ACLU of South Carolina, and South Carolina Equality Coalition filed the lawsuit on May 30 in the U.S. District Court for the District of South Carolina on behalf of Eden Rogers and Brandy Welch. The couple’s application to serve as foster parents was denied by Miracle Hill Ministries, South Carolina’s largest state-contracted foster care agency, after state officials requested requested and HHS granted a waiver of federal nondiscrimination rules for federally funded agencies. By doing so so, HHS and the State authorized and enabled taxpayer-funded foster care agencies to use religious criteria to exclude families based on their faith and sexual orientation.
The agency’s criteria excludes prospective foster parents who are not evangelical Protestant Christian or who are same-sex couples of any faith.
“We work hard to raise our own two girls in a loving and stable home. Faith is a part of our family life, so it is hurtful and insulting to us that Miracle Hill’s religious view of what a family must look like deprives foster children of a nurturing, supportive home,” Welch said in a statement.
Lambda legal says that HHS and South Carolina fund Miracle Hill with taxpayer money to perform child welfare services for children in state care even though Miracle Hill made clear that it excludes families based on Miracle Hill’s religious beliefs. In order to foster through Miracle Hill, a family must agree with Miracle Hill’s “doctrinal statement,” including “that God’s design for marriage is the legal joining of one man and one woman in a life-long covenant relationship” – a requirement that excludes same-sex couples of any faith.
"After family challenges, I helped raise my siblings. I know firsthand the fear and stress that children feel when they are forced to leave their homes,” Eden said in a statement. “As a mother and an educator, I want to make sure children in foster care have a safe, supportive, and loving home when they need one.”
HHS and South Carolina have sanctioned and facilitated the use of these religious criteria in the public child welfare system by means of the waiver enabling discrimination.
The lawsuit claims that HHS, the HHS Administration for Children and Families, certain HHS officials, Governor Henry McMaster, and the Director of the South Carolina Department of Social Services are violating the Establishment, Equal Protection and Due Process Clauses of the U.S. Constitution by authorizing and enabling the use of religious criteria by Miracle Hill to screen out would-be foster families because of their faith or sexual orientation.
Brian Symmes, the spokesperson for Gov. McMaster, stated that the governor’s position in the matter wasn’t to hinder the fostering process but to protect the constitutional rights of an organization.
“Anybody who is willing to open their home to a child in need is providing a critically important service. Governor McMaster’s position has nothing to do with keeping anyone from fostering children and has everything to do with protecting Miracle Hill’s ability to exercise its own religious freedom," Symmes said.
Miracle Hill President/CEO Reid Lehman released a statement this afternoon saying:
"Miracle Hill Ministries considers it a privilege to be one of the many foster care options in the Upstate of South Carolina. Our unique ability to partner with Christian parents who share our religious convictions has helped to greatly increase the pool of available foster homes. We are saddened that Ms. Rogers and Ms. Welch are unwilling to foster children if they cannot do so with Miracle Hill. We would be honored to work with them if they shared our religious convictions in belief and practice, and we’ve encouraged them to volunteer in other ways with our ministry if they would like to do so. Not only are there several foster agencies in the Upstate that will partner with any qualified individual or couple, but the state’s own Department of Social Services is available throughout the state to license anyone who meets their criteria and completes the licensing process. We shared this information with Ms. Rogers and Ms. Welch.
Miracle Hill Ministries has always served foster children regardless of their faith or no faith at all. Additionally, our foster families comply with the law to respect the religious heritage and sexual orientation of children in their care. Faith-based foster care agencies are working hard to end the foster care crisis and should be allowed to participate in the child welfare system while maintaining their religious convictions and practices. It is in the best interest of South Carolina’s children to allow as many unique foster care agencies as possible to increase the pool of available foster homes."