Methodist children’s home sues Biden administration
Tennessee orphanage challenges a resurrected nondiscrimination rule for foster care
A Tennessee orphanage’s new lawsuit against the Biden administration shows that a yearslong conflict between gay interests and the religious freedoms of child care agencies is far from over.
In a complaint filed in federal court last Friday, the Holston United Methodist Home in Greeneville is challenging a government rule that requires recipients of federal foster care funds to place children with foster and adoptive families without regard to sexual orientation or gender identity. For Holston Home, enforcement of the nondiscrimination rule would undercut a ministry that in its lifetime has served more than 8,000 abused or neglected children in Tennessee and parts of Virginia.
“For the last 126 years, our agency has followed a traditional Wesleyan theology of Scripture, and we’ve had a statement of faith that we have expected foster and adoptive families to align with before we would go forward in a partnership,” said Bradley Williams, president of Holston. He added that those unable to work with Holston had other options since six times as many providers lacked such requirements.
The federal rule places Holston, as well as many other religious child-placing ministries, in a dilemma: refuse to compromise their religious beliefs and lose the ability to serve children, or violate those beliefs by placing children in homes that do not align with their faith, such as non-Christian families, LGBT couples, or cohabiting couples. The ministry claims the rule violates its ability to speak freely about its beliefs on marriage and gender to prospective families, as well as its ability to act in accordance with its religious beliefs.
First instituted under President Barack Obama, the nondiscrimination rule went unenforced during the Trump administration. The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) at the time issued waivers for many agencies who objected on religious grounds. But that ended last week when HHS, under President Joe Biden, withdrew the waivers.
Alliance Defending Freedom’s Ryan Bangert, who represents Holston in the lawsuit, described the Biden administration’s removal of waivers as a “shot across the bow”—that is, a declaration of the administration’s intent to force faith-based providers to comply. He said ADF planned to file a motion asking the court to block enforcement of the rule.
Other ministries in a similar predicament will be watching the case as it plays out—whether South Carolina’s Miracle Hill Ministries, Michigan’s St. Vincent Catholic Charities, or Kentucky’s Sunrise Children’s Services. HHS reports that in September 2020 there were more than 407,000 children in the foster care system, a majority served by religious agencies.
A Supreme Court ruling this summer spared Philadelphia’s Catholic Social Services from a nondiscrimination rule that forced it to stop working with foster children for a time, but that ruling had a narrow application that didn’t resolve cases involving the federal rule.
Meanwhile, Williams is hopeful he and the staff at Holston House will be allowed to continue providing foster services.
“I’m blessed to wake up every day completely sure that I’m doing what God has called me to do,” he said. “I’ve been incredibly fortunate to see God’s hand at work in the lives of children and young adults.”