by Joshua Gill
The Administration for Children and Families, within the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, granted an exemption to faith-based foster care agencies in South Carolina, allowing them to choose potential parents in accordance with their religious beliefs without being denied government funding.
The exemption comes in response to a request from South Carolina Republican Governor Henry McMaster on behalf of Miracle Hill Ministries, which is the largest provider of foster care in South Carolina.
The ACF ruled that faith-based foster care agencies have a legally protected right to operate in accordance with their religious beliefs.
South Carolina child welfare agencies won an exemption to an Obama-era regulation Wednesday, allowing them to approve or deny parents based on religion.
The Administration for Children and Families granted South Carolina an exception to the December 2016 grants regulation on the grounds that faith-based foster care agencies have a legally protected right to practice their religious beliefs through good works.
The regulation stipulated that foster care agencies who discriminated against potential parents on the basis of religion would not be eligible to receive government funds, meaning Christian, Jewish and other faith-based agencies could not choose to place foster children only with parents of the faith on which the agency is based. (RELATED: US Bishops And Faith Leaders Urge Protection For Religious Child Welfare Providers)
“We have approved South Carolina’s request to protect religious freedom and preserve high-quality foster care placement options for children,” said Lynn Johnson, assistant secretary for ACF, in a statement provided to The Daily Caller News Foundation. “Faith-based organizations that provide foster care services not only perform a great service for their communities, they are exercising a legally-protected right to practice their faith through good works.”
The exception came at the request of South Carolina governor Henry McMaster in light of what he argued was government discrimination against faith-based agencies, specifically the case of Miracle Hill Ministries, the largest foster care provider in South Carolina. The state Department of Social Services ordered Miracle Hill to stop its practice of only placing foster children with Christian families in accordance with the ministry’s religious beliefs in accordance with the grants regulation.
If Miracle Hill failed to comply, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services reserved the right to recoup millions of dollars in government funds paid to South Carolina agencies.
— Miracle Hill (@MiracleHill) August 10, 2016
McMaster wrote to HHS arguing that the ministry should receive a waiver of exemption from the regulation and issued an executive order forbidding the state DSS from penalizing the ministry. The Anti-Defamation League retorted with a letter of their own, urging the HHS to deny any exemption, which prompted a rebuke from the Coalition for Jewish Values with the support of more than 1,000 rabbis.
“As governor, I am protecting religious freedom for all South Carolinians, and I’m working tirelessly to keep Miracle Hill operating at full force,” McMaster’s letter read, according to USA Today’s Greenville News.
The coalition argued that allowing Miracle Hill to operate according to its religious principles would not limit the amount of foster families available to children in need, as there are several other options for potential foster parents in the state. Forcing Miracle Hill out of business by denying funding to the ministry, however, would displace the children in the ministry’s care and potentially overburden other foster care agencies.
The ACF agreed with McMaster’s and the coalition’s arguments in favor of Miracle Hill and other faith-based agencies, especially in light of how many children are currently flooding state child welfare agencies as a result of the U.S. opioid epidemic.
“Our federal agency should not – and, under the laws adopted by Congress, cannot – drive faith-motivated foster care providers out of the business of serving children without a compelling government interest, especially now that child welfare systems are stretched thin as a result of the opioid epidemic,” Johnson added.
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