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A Christian ministry won’t change its Christians-only criteria for foster-care parents. Is that okay with Trump?

A copy of the Bible rests on a conference room table at Miracle Hill Ministries in Greenville, S.C. The group will accept only Christian families into its taxpayer-supported foster-care program. (Jacob Biba for The Washington Post)
A copy of the Bible rests on a conference room table at Miracle Hill Ministries in Greenville, S.C. The group will accept only Christian families into its taxpayer-supported foster-care program. (Jacob Biba for The Washington Post)

The Miracle Hill Ministries in Greenville, S.C., makes clear from the start that only Christian parents need apply for its foster-care program. On its forms, candidates are asked to offer personal testimony of their faith or salvation.

“Our existence and identity is tied to our faith in God and belief in Jesus Christ,” said Reid Lehman, Miracle Hill’s president and chief executive. He said the ministry would drop out of the foster-care program rather than work with parents who aren’t Christian.

That policy, in place for 30 years, runs counter to an Obama-era regulation barring religious discrimination in the federally funded foster-care program. Now, with Miracle Hill’s funding threatened, the Trump administration is being asked by the governor of South Carolina to let Miracle Hill participate anyway.

It’s the latest clash in a long-running debate over religious freedom and government social services, as three successive administrations have considered how much religion is too much religion when agencies are collecting taxpayer funds. The Trump administration’s response in the South Carolina case will signal whether it will adhere to modest limits imposed by the Bush and Obama administrations or whether it will allow religious entities a freer hand.

It also represents a test of the Obama policy, put into place in the final days of that administration. The fact that the Trump administration has yet to give South Carolina an answer suggests the question may be a difficult one even for some conservatives.

In October 2017, Jeff Sessions, attorney general at the time, signaled the Trump administration’s view on these issues when he released sweeping guidance on religious freedom, including an admonition that federal grants cannot require religious groups to alter their character.

Civil liberties groups decry Sessions’s guidance on religious freedom

The issue is playing out in the states as well. In South Carolina, the state has told Miracle Hill its license is in jeopardy, contending it is violating state as well as federal policy. In other states, similar disputes are tied to policies regarding sexual orientation.

In Philadelphia, the city cut off Catholic Social Services from its foster-care program after learning that the agency would not license same-sex couples. Catholic Social Services is challenging the decision in court.

In Michigan, the American Civil Liberties Union is suing the state over its policy of contracting with child-placement agencies that use religious criteria to turn away gay and lesbian couples who wish to be foster or adoptive parents.

“States have an obligation to care for children in the public child-welfare system,” said Leslie Cooper, an ACLU attorney. “When they hire agencies to care for them . . . they should not be using religious criteria to deny children access to families that they desperately need.”

In South Carolina, Miracle Hill was expecting to have been given the okay by now. Trump administration officials have signaled they are sympathetic to its cause, yet the decision has been pending for months.

Founded in 1937, Miracle Hill runs several social service programs, all infused with religion. It will hire only Christians, whether the job is programming, cutting the grass — or being a foster parent.

A spokeswoman for the state social services agency said there are 11 child-placement agencies in South Carolina with religious affiliations, but Miracle Hill is the only one that insists foster parents share its faith.

Lehman, the Miracle Hill president, said parents are expected to serve as role models for the children in their care. “The children will see what a life dedicated to proclaiming the love of God is about,” he said.

The group received nearly $600,000 in state and federal money in the last fiscal year to support foster-care families, about half of its total costs.

The group’s religious requirements appear to have come to the attention of the South Carolina Department of Social Services after Beth Lesser, who is Jewish, and her husband were turned away by Miracle Hill.

“I was the only Jewish person there,” Lesser told the Forward, a newspaper that covers issues of interest to American Jews. “It was humiliating to be told essentially Christians over here, Jews over there.”

A spokeswoman for the Department of Social Services would say only that it acted after becoming aware that Miracle Hill required a signed statement of faith to participate in the program.

In January 2018, the department wrote to Miracle Hill, stating that its Christians-only policy ran afoul of a federal regulation finalized by the Department of Health and Human Services in the closing days of the Obama administration. That regulation was spurred by complaints about discrimination against potential foster parents on the grounds of religion and, separately, sexual orientation, according to one person involved. The rules bar such discrimination in all HHS programs.

The South Carolina agency told Miracle Hill that its policy also runs counter to state rules that bar discrimination based on religion. In its letter, the department noted that Miracle Hill’s written policy states it will abide by these state and federal rules.

“The Department’s request is that Miracle Hill comply with its own policy submitted for licensure,” a state official said in a January 2018 letter to the group. She said its license was being downgraded to temporary and warned the temporary license would be valid for no longer than six months. “Failure to address these concerns will result in the expiration of Miracle Hill’s license as a Child Placing Agency.”

But Miracle Hill’s cause was soon taken up by South Carolina Gov. Henry McMaster (R), who asked HHS for a waiver from the nondiscrimination rules. McMaster argued that the regulation was unlawful and violates the group’s constitutional rights.

The regulation, he wrote, effectively requires child placement agencies such as Miracle Hill to “abandon their religious beliefs or forgo the available public licensure and funding.”

He also persuaded the legislature to override the nondiscrimination provisions set by the Department of Social Services.

In March, Steve Wagner, who runs the HHS division that oversees foster care, wrote to a McMaster aide that he was “pushing this hard,” according to emails received by the ACLU through a records request. He suggested final approval could come later that month. In July, an HHS official told McMaster’s office that she expected that “any day” the approval letter would receive “final clearance.”

But HHS Secretary Alex Azar has yet to announce a decision — much to the frustration of South Carolina Republicans who have lobbied on behalf of the group. Democrats and liberal groups are publicly campaigning against any exemption.

In a statement, an HHS spokesman gave no timeline for a decision but framed the issue as one of “religious freedom,” signaling openness to allowing the funding.

“The request from the governor of South Carolina on religious freedom and foster care agencies has been received by HHS and is currently under consideration,” he said.