October 19 2018
The Trump administration is considering whether to grant a South Carolina request that would effectively allow faith-based foster care agencies in the state the ability to deny Jewish parents from fostering children in its network. The argument, from the state and from the agency, is that the federal Religious Freedom Restoration Act should not force a Protestant group to work with Jewish people if it violates a tenet of their faith.
The case being made by South Carolina is an extension of the debate around RFRA, which is more commonly associated with discrimination against LGBTQ people, but by no means applies exclusively to that group.
If granted, the exemption would allow Miracle Hill Ministries, a Protestant social service agency working in the state’s northwest region, to continue receiving federal dollars while “recruiting Christian foster families,” which it has been doing since 1988, according to its website. That discrimination would apply not just to Jewish parents, but also to parents who are Muslim, Catholic, Unitarian, atheist, agnostic or other some other non-Protestant Christian denomination.
Miracle Hill covers Greenville, Pickens and Spartanburg counties, and its foster care services have becoming increasingly in demand as an opioid epidemic has torn through a generation of young parents. The fight over its policy has been written about in the local press and was first covered nationally by The Nation.
The request has been made to the Department of Health and Human Services. The agency has been quietly taken over by hardline evangelical activists, a perk for their unwavering support of Trump’s presidential bid and his administration.
Miracle Hill has told the local press that while they themselves will not place children with families who don’t meet their standards, they refer them to agencies that will. But as the provider with the region’s highest quality of service, making referrals means sending people to deal directly with the state Department of Social Services, or to agencies in other parts of the state that are several hours away by car.
Beth Lesser is a Jewish parent who was turned away by Miracle Hill. “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,” Lesser told The Intercept.
When she still lived in Greenville, Lesser participated in a three-day training co-hosted by Miracle Hill and Fostering Great Ideas, another regional child welfare agency. On the third day, two officials running the training, David White of Fostering Great Ideas, as well as a Miracle Hill representative, told the group that non-Protestants wouldn’t be able to mentor with Miracle Hill, let alone foster a child.
“I’ve never felt that sort of discrimination before,” she said. “Once they get [the children] in one of their group homes, they don’t let non-Christian Protestants mentor them, foster them, or anything.” Lesser couldn’t recall the name of the Miracle Hill representative, but White confirmed the exchange to The Intercept, saying that they were explaining Miracle Hill’s policy, and that his agency, FGI, does not itself discriminate. Miracle Hill did not respond to a request for comment.