Several civil rights organizations are suing U.S. Department of Health and Human Services and the state of South Carolina on behalf of a married lesbian couple who were turned away by a government-funded foster care agency.
Lambda Legal, the American Civil Liberties Union and its South Carolina affiliate, and the South Carolina Equality Coalition are representing Eden Rogers and Brandy Welch, who applied to become foster parents through Miracle Hill Ministries, South Carolina’s largest state-contracted foster care agency. The agency turned them down because it refuses to accept foster parents who are not evangelical Protestant Christians or who are same-sex couples of any faith.
Rogers and Welch were rejected after HHS granted South Carolina a waiver from complying with nondiscrimination rules for foster care agencies that receive federal funding. “In so doing, 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,” says a Lambda Legal press release.
Miracle Hill, located in Greenville, is the primary foster care agency serving South Carolina’s upstate region. It requires prospective foster parents to adhere to its doctrinal statement, which holds among other things “that God’s design for marriage is the legal joining of one man and one woman in a life-long covenant relationship.”
“Miracle Hill has turned away families seeking to open their hearts and homes to children in need because they were Jewish, Catholic, same-sex couples, or otherwise failed to meet the agency’s religious test,” says the lawsuit, filed Thursday in U.S. District Court in South Carolina.
Welch, 40, who works for an accounting firm, and Rogers, 33, an educator, have been married for three years. They have two daughters, ages 7 and 10, and are members of a Unitarian Universalist church. Rogers had helped raise her siblings, and it was partly because of this experience that she and Welch wanted to become foster parents. “I know firsthand the fear and stress that children feel when they are forced to leave their homes,” Rogers said in the Lambda release. “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.”
The couple submitted an online application to Miracle Hill in April. They received a rejection letter via email May 1, saying that agency officials “feel a religious obligation to partner with foster parents who share our beliefs and who are active in a Christian church” and that Miracle Hill “would not be a good fit to assist you in your quest ... to become foster parents.”
The suit names as defendants HHS, the HHS Administration for Children and Families, certain HHS officials, South Carolina Gov. Henry McMaster, and the director of the South Carolina Department of Social Services. It contends that they violated the establishment, equal protection, and due process clauses of the U.S. Constitution by enabling Miracle Hill to discriminate based on religion and sexual orientation while receiving federal and state funds.
“Trump’s HHS and South Carolina should not be permitting foster care agencies that receive taxpayer money to care for wards of the state to disqualify potential foster parents because they don’t conform to a religious litmus test,” Currey Cook, counsel and director of the Youth in Out-of-Home Care Project at Lambda Legal, said in the release. “Agencies have no right to exclude families because of their faith or sexual orientation. Think of all the potential loving and stable families excluded and the message that sends to youth in state care. By allowing Miracle Hill to discriminate against this couple, the government is not only favoring certain religious beliefs over others, but is also placing those beliefs above what is in the best interest of children in foster care.”