Federal judge upholds faith-based foster care
But proposed HHS rule could further challenge Christian foster parents
Miracle Hill Ministries, the largest foster care agency in the upstate Greenville, S.C., region, welcomed an important victory on Friday. A U.S. District Court dismissed two lawsuits that challenged South Carolina’s reliance on faith-based Miracle Hill as a child placement agency. Despite the need to find more loving homes for children, LGBTQ groups are already drawing new battle lines against faith-based foster care.
Miracle Hill’s foster care program began in 1988 as an extension of its ministry to homeless adults and children. It places children only in homes where parents are “followers of Jesus Christ,” active in a Christian church, and agree with traditional evangelical teachings, including affirming Biblical views on gender identity and marriage. According to Miracle Hill, the agency cared for 2,262 children in the state foster care system between 2016 and 2022 and supplied, on average, 10 percent of all foster homes in the state.
Miracle Hill’s president and CEO, Ryan Duerk, said his organization is thankful for a justice system that preserved religious liberty for its ministry. He stressed that Christian foster care homes are needed now more than ever.
“Foster care is traumatic by definition,” Duerk said. When removed from their homes, children leave all they’ve ever known—often separated from their brothers and sisters. According to Duerk, South Carolina is 2,000 families short to cover all the children in need of foster care, and the largest number of homeless children are teens and sibling groups. Duerk wants to find more families to help with those two groups so that “a lot more kids go to sleep in homes where they know they are loved.”
In the first lawsuit challenging Miracle Hill’s faith requirements, two women married to each other sought to become foster parents. When Miracle Hill declined their application, the women teamed up with the American Civil Liberties Union to sue Gov. Henry McMaster and the state’s Department of Social Services in 2019. The state agency licensed Miracle Hill and also had a contract with it to provide child placement services.
Aimee Maddonna, a prospective foster parent and volunteer mentor for foster children, filed the second lawsuit in 2019 over disagreements with Miracle Hill’s statement of faith. Her lawsuit, filed by Americans United for Separation of Church and State, sued the same state officials and agency.
All three plaintiffs accused the state of sponsoring discrimination through Miracle Hill. They claimed the state denied them the opportunity to become foster parents because of Miracle Hill’s religious requirements.
Because the lawsuits focused on similar allegations and demands, the court considered both simultaneously. Judge Joseph Dawson III, a 2020 appointee of President Donald Trump, found the gist of plaintiffs’ complaints to be that the state authorized Miracle Hill to exclude families from the foster program when it accommodated Miracle Hill’s religious beliefs.
Dawson relied on the Supreme Court case Fulton v. City of Philadelphia to dismiss both lawsuits. The U.S. Supreme Court decided in 2021 that Philadelphia must accommodate Catholic Social Services’ religious beliefs in its foster care program and that doing so did not impose CSS’s beliefs on anyone else. There were other private foster care agencies in the city.
Following that reasoning, Dawson found that Miracle Hill, too, was only one of many foster care agencies in South Carolina. The plaintiffs could have become foster parents or mentors using other options, including seeking licenses directly from the state. By accommodating Miracle Hill’s beliefs, the state did not impose those beliefs on the plaintiffs.
Lori Windham, vice president and senior counsel at the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty, said that Fulton and Dawson’s rulings send a strong and encouraging signal to faith-based foster care agencies and state governments. Federal and state governments can continue to rely on foster care agencies with religious convictions.
Despite the favorable rulings, Windham also cautioned that new challenges are coming. LGBTQ groups are targeting prospective foster parents and their traditional Christian beliefs about marriage, sexual orientation, or gender identity. Several lawsuits, including one pending in Oregon, have cropped up.
The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services published a proposed rule last week designed to ensure that foster children who identify as LGBTQ live “free from hostility, stigma, or rejection” related to sexual orientation or gender identity. Any foster care provider, whether in a foster family home or an institution, who attempts to undermine, suppress, or change a child’s orientation would not be an appropriate placement, according to the rule. Caregivers are expected to affirm the child’s self-identified gender identity and “utilize the child’s identified pronouns, chosen name, and allow the child to dress in an age-appropriate manner that the child believes reflects their self-identified gender identity and expression.”
If HHS adopts the proposed rule, Windham predicts it will create more conflicts and reduce the number of homes available for foster children. Given the great shortage of foster families in many states, she said a rule that begins to treat any loving family as off-limits because of their beliefs is ultimately harmful to all children, including children who identify as LGBTQ.
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