Metro Weekly

Child advocacy groups urge HHS to reject South Carolina’s request to permit foster care discrimination

Gov. Henry McMaster has asked for waiver allowing foster care agencies to refuse to place children with non-Christian or LGBTQ couples

South Carolina Gov. Henry McMaster – Photo: Facebook.

Twenty-one nonprofit child advocacy organizations have signed a letter urging the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services to reject South Carolina’s request to discriminate against LGBTQ people.

A waiver requested by the state would allow foster care providers who receive federal taxpayer dollars to turn away prospective foster or adoptive parents based on the provider’s religious objections.

If granted by HHS, the waiver would allow foster care agencies to refuse to place children with qualified LGBTQ foster parents, as well as those who happen to be Jewish, Muslim, atheist, or non-Christian.

“Beyond the immorality of this flagrant attempt to sanction discrimination, children would suffer the most,” said Christina Wilson Remlin, lead counsel at Children’s Rights, one of the letter’s signatories. “South Carolina is already facing a severe shortage of foster homes. No child should be denied a safe and loving environment simply because a prospective parent does not pass a moral or religious litmus test.”

In the letter, sent to Roger Severino, director of the Office for Civil Rights at HHS, the child advocates warn that the waiver would violate the First Amendment by favoring one set of religious beliefs over another, as well as other federal statutes, and would prioritize adults’ personal beliefs over the safety and wellbeing of children in the foster care system.

They also note that “a system of discriminatory religiously segregated providers” could create a loophole that would allow child placement agencies who discriminate based on race to continue receiving taxpayer dollars.

“We respect and value the role that faith-based providers play in providing both placement and services for children in foster care across the country. Our concern is with state-sanctioned discrimination of any kind,” the letter reads, adding, “Licensed discrimination would only further harm the increasing number of children who so desperately need safe and loving homes.”

Other signatories to the letter include the Center for Children & Youth Justice, the Children & Youth Law Clinic at the University of Miami School of Law, the Children’s Defense Fund-New York, the Children’s Law Center, the Family Equality Council, Lambda Legal, and the South Carolina Appleseed Legal Justice Center.

The controversy in South Carolina particularly centers around Miracle Hill, the largest foster care provider for children without special needs in the state.

Miracle Hill has taken a strict approach to approving foster parents, even rejecting a Jewish couple, even though they had gone through all the requisite training and background checks, reports Greenville News.

In March, Gov. Henry McMaster issued an executive order directing the state Department of Social Services not to punish child placement agencies that discriminate based on religious beliefs.

He also wrote to HHS requesting a waiver on behalf of Christian-identified child placement agencies, arguing that it would violate their religious liberty if they were forced to place children with non-Christians or couples to whose lifestyle they object.

McMaster has argued that the agency will be forced to close its doors if it cannot continue receiving federal taxpayer dollars. In order to continue receiving those federal dollars, Miracle Hill and other religiously-affiliated agencies need a waiver that will ensure they can refuse to place children with foster parents who do not share its Christian beliefs. 

“As governor, I am protecting religious freedom for all South Carolinians, and I’m working tirelessly to keep Miracle Hill operating at full force,” McMaster wrote in his letter to HHS.

The Anti-Defamation League, a national Jewish advocacy organization, has also come out publicly against the waiver, calling the idea of allowing child placement agencies to discriminate against prospective parents “immoral.”

“No child should be denied a loving foster or adoptive home simply because a prospective parent is Jewish, another faith, a different race or LGBTQ,” Jonathan Greenblatt, the CEO and national director of the ADL, wrote in a letter to HHS officials. “Granting the requested waiver is immoral because it would only serve to harm the most vulnerable in our society.”

A spokesman for McMaster called the ADL’s concerns “unfounded and off-base,” arguing that religiously-affiliated placement agencies are essential to ensuring homes for children in state custody, who otherwise would be forced to choose between violating their deeply-held religious beliefs or getting out of the foster care business altogether.

But Greenblatt argues that the U.S. Supreme Court has ruled that the Religious Freedom Restoration Act does not allow discrimination while protecting religious freedoms.

“Our nation’s religious liberty protections such as RFRA are intended as a shield for exercise of religion, and not a sword to harm or discriminate against others,” Greenblatt wrote in his letter to HHS. “In light of the detrimental impact granting the requested waiver would have on the neediest children and the serious legal issues raised by the waiver request, we urge its rejection in the strongest terms.”

John Riley is the local news reporter for Metro Weekly. He can be reached at jriley@metroweekly.com

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