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Foster care ministry still fighting to exist

Miracle Hill Ministries remains a target of LGBT activists

Miracle Hill Ministries in Greenville, S.C. Getty Images/Photo by Jacob Biba for The Washington Post

Foster care ministry still fighting to exist

South Carolina Gov. Henry McMaster is going to bat for a Christian foster care ministry that has faced off against LGBT activists for years.

Miracle Hill Ministries in Greenville, S.C., has helped find homes for foster children since 1988. It has a policy of partnering only with Christians who affirm a Biblical view of gender identity and marriage. In 2014, a prospective foster parent who did not share the agency’s Biblical beliefs sued South Carolina for partnering with Miracle Hill. The plaintiff said the state was not following federal nondiscrimination rules by licensing the religious child-placing agency. In 2019, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services issued an exemption notice, granting the state of South Carolina permission to work with any child-placing agency regardless of its belief.

Shortly after that, the American Civil Liberties Union solicited a same-sex couple to apply to become foster parents at Miracle Hill. When the couple was declined, the ACLU sued South Carolina, claiming Miracle Hill was discriminatory and that its foster care license and funding should be terminated.

McMaster went to bat for Miracle Hill, vigorously defending state licensing of religious foster care agencies. Now, armed with a 2021 Supreme Court ruling in favor of Catholic Social Services in Philadelphia, the governor’s attorneys have gone on the offense.

In Fulton v. City of Philadelphia, Supreme Court held that Philadelphia’s refusal to contract with Catholic Social Services for foster care services unless CSS certified same-sex couples as foster parents violated the free exercise clause of the First Amendment. The city’s action forced CSS to curtail its mission of serving the children of Philadelphia or approve relationships inconsistent with its beliefs.

The lead attorney in Fulton, the Becket Fund’s Lori Windham, represents McMaster in South Carolina. In a motion filed in federal district court on Nov. 17, the state argues it has no choice but to license private faith-based foster care agencies. Like Philadelphia, South Carolina makes exceptions to its policies for secular reasons for foster agencies. Therefore, the state must treat Miracle Hill similarly and make an exception to the nondiscrimination rules for Miracle Hill to accommodate the agency’s religious beliefs under the U.S. Constitution.

Windham hopes South Carolina will prevail as Catholic Social Services did in Fulton.

“States have figured out they will need to continue working with faith-based agencies,” she said. She noted the Fulton decision was the reason why both Michigan and Philadelphia agreed to continue working with religious agencies.

Though initial reactions to Fulton included disappointment that it was narrowly written, Windham explained its significance should not be underestimated. Instead of answering the easier question of whether a state can continue to partner with a faith-based agency, Fulton answered the much harder question: must a state continue to partner with a faith-based agency if it doesn’t want to? The Fulton court clearly said yes, when the state also retains the right to make secular exceptions to general rules as is normal in the foster care system.

That may be news to the Biden administration. In response to state laws intended to protect religious foster care agencies, the administration is instead doubling down on federal nondiscrimination policies that directly conflict with Christian beliefs, especially for vulnerable children.

On June 15, President Joe Biden issued an executive order in response to “unrelenting political and legislative attacks at the state level—on LGBTQ children and families in particular.” He ordered the U.S. attorney general and the Department of Health and Human Services, as well as other agencies, to advance protections and rights for LGBTQ individuals.

The order required HHS to promote “equity and inclusion for LGBTQ foster and adoptive parents” and to “safeguard LGBTQI youth from dangerous practices like so-called ‘conversion therapy.’” Conversion therapy describes efforts to encourage heterosexual orientation or a gender identity consistent with a person’s biological sex. The president’s order specifically called for an end to conversion therapy worldwide.

Despite these types of government policies, Becket Fund’s Windham observed that lawsuits nationwide opposing religious foster care may start to wind down due to the Fulton decision. That said, she is uncertain why the ACLU has persisted in its lawsuit against South Carolina with Miracle Hill as its target, but the motion the state just filed will force an answer to that question. The ACLU will have to put up a written defense in court or voluntarily dismiss the case.

To minimize distractions from government policies, Miracle Hill took a step of faith by declining all government reimbursements for serving children beginning in July 2021. To date, that amounts to more than $1.2 million, according to the ministry’s president and CEO, Ryan Duerk. Despite believing Miracle Hill has a right to exist and accept reimbursement for services, Duerk explained that Miracle Hill’s mandate, “to care for ‘the least of these,’” is rooted in its identity in Christ, so they chose dependence on the Lord rather than on the government.

Adele Fulton

Adele is a graduate of the World Journalism Institute, Vermont Law School, and Westmont College. She is an attorney in New Hampshire and lives in New England with her husband.


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