The Trump administration is considering a request from a faith-based foster care agency to continue denying non-Christian parents from fostering children, the Intercept reported Friday.
The case centers around a South Carolina Christian organization, Miracle Hill Ministries, which claims that under the 1993 Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA), they are not obligated to place children with non-Protestant Christian foster families.
Miracle Hill receives federal funds to pair children with foster families, while specifically recruiting Christian families. In practice, this means that they’ve frequently refused to place foster children with non-Protestant, non-Christian families. Several Jewish families, the Intercept’s Akela Lacy reports, have been explicitly told that they were rejected on the basis of their faith.
The request from Miracle Hill is currently under consideration by the Department of Health and Human Services, which has, under the Trump administration, consistently upheld tenets and rights affiliated with the political stance of evangelical Christianity, including anti-abortion rights and anti-LGBTQ positions.
In February of this year, the Department of Social Services (DSS) sent Miracle Hill a letter informing them that rejecting non-Christian families from fostering children meant it could risk losing its license as a federally-funded child protection agency, prompting Miracle Hill’s request to the HHS.
However, as the Nation reports, South Carolina’s Gov. Henry McMaster (R), a longtime Trump ally, has personally intervened in the case, asking HHS to decide in favor of Miracle Hill. He has also issued a statewide executive order exempting faith-based child protection agencies from state laws designed to protect against religious discrimination. Nine other states, including Alabama, North Dakota, South Dakota, Virginia, Texas, Kansas, Mississippi, Michigan, and Oklahoma, already have state laws on the books that allow for similar exemptions. Of these, five states’ laws were passed in the Trump era.
Complicating matters further, the heavy impact of the opioid crisis in South Carolina has left a generation of children in need of temporary or permanent care. Because Miracle Hill is one of the largest providers of foster care in the area, placing 418 children in care in 2017, those would-be foster parents rejected by Miracle Hill on religious grounds are left with fewer and more inconvenient options for fostering children.
Technically, Miracle Hill argues that it refers families it finds unsuitable to other agencies, but these agencies are often far away or poorly staffed. As a member of one Jewish family turned away by Miracle Hill told the Intercept, “Understand, in the upstate of South Carolina, if you want to be a foster parent or a mentor, there’s DSS, which is the government. And there’s Miracle Hill. There really isn’t anybody else.”
The Miracle Hill case is representative of a wider trend on the part of the Trump administration
The Miracle Hill case reflects a wider trend in religious liberty law, policy, and practice during the Trump administration, which has frequently allied itself with evangelical Christian interests on the issue. From the initial days of his campaign, when Donald Trump vowed to overturn the Johnson Amendment — a provision in the tax code prohibiting nonprofits, such as churches, from openly endorsing political candidates — Trump has made advancing the broadest possible definition of religious liberty a cornerstone of his campaign and presidency. (Trump ultimately issued an executive order suspending the Johnson Amendment, without fully overturning it.)
Last year, the Department of Justice released a memo mandating that all government offices — including HHS — adopt the broadest possible definition of religious liberty, upholding it even when it comes into conflict with, say, anti-discrimination laws. That move prevented any government office from second-guessing the “reasonableness of a belief” — whether, for example, in the case of Miracle Hill, forcing a Christian foster care agency to place children with non-Christian families would violate that institution’s Christian identity.
Earlier this year, Trump created a new office designed to bolster the influence of religious groups in government: the White House Faith and Opportunity Initiative, which is designed to have representatives throughout all other federal offices. And, in July, Attorney General Jeff Sessions announced the creation of a new government task force to enforce the 2017 DOJ memo and to combat what he called the “dangers” of secularism.
Within this paradigm, the Miracle Hill case is just one of many designed not only to promote religious liberty, but to affirm an incredibly broad definition of religious liberty, upholding both the rights of individuals to act in accordance with their conscience but also that of institutions to discriminate. While it’s unclear how this particular case will be resolved, it is nevertheless a harbinger of things to come: a federal government deeply emboldened by, and indebted to, evangelical Christianity.