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Congressional probe finds SC Christian foster care discrimination harms LGBTQ families

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Gov. Henry McMaster visited Miracle Hill Ministries in Greenville in August 2018 to award CEO Reid Lehman the Order of the Palmetto, the state's highest civilian honor. McMaster has worked to ensure Miracle Hill can continue denying foster care services to same-sex couples and non-Christian families. File/Jamie Lovegrove/Staff

COLUMBIA — An investigation by congressional Democrats found that a waiver granted by the Trump administration to let a Christian foster care agency in South Carolina limit services to straight Christian families is not in the best interests of children and did not properly consider the views of policy experts.

The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services approved the waiver for Greenville-based Miracle Hill Ministries in January 2019 at the request of Gov. Henry McMaster, allowing them to receive federal funding despite a regulation barring discrimination against potential foster care parents on the basis of sexual orientation.

In a 33-page report released Wednesday, the U.S. House Ways and Means Committee staff determined the federal agency cited a religious freedom authority that had never been used for such a waiver, violated legal mandates to act in the best interests of children and did not consult internal or external experts about the potential effects of the policy.

"These actions represent a stark departure from longstanding HHS policy and practice to consult experts and families to ensure that agency decisions promote the best interests of vulnerable children," the report said.

Miracle Hill serves about 15 percent of the state’s foster care families but mostly limits the program to straight Protestant families, arguing they are exercising their right to religious freedom. Officials at Miracle hill have said they will shutter their foster care practice if compelled to serve families who do not adhere to their religious beliefs.

The waiver sparked multiple lawsuits that are still pending in the courts, including from a Catholic woman and a lesbian couple who said they were unfairly denied access to Miracle Hill's foster care program.

The late U.S. Rep. John Lewis, D-Ga., initiated the congressional investigation soon after the waiver was granted along with U.S. Rep. Danny Davis, D-Ill., requesting information from HHS, the Government Accountability Office, South Carolina state officials and Miracle Hill. 

Though the committee said HHS "was largely uncooperative and not responsive," the documents they did obtain showed that HHS officials discussed the unprecedented nature of their decision and indicated that the move was made largely by political appointees rather than the department's career civil servants.

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McMaster's spokesman Brian Symmes said that congressional Democrats disagreeing with the governor on religious freedom issues "isn’t exactly surprising or groundbreaking."

"The bottom line is that the governor doesn’t believe any person or organization should be forced to forfeit their beliefs in order to provide this critical service to South Carolina’s most vulnerable children," Symmes said.

Miracle Hill CEO Ryan Duerk described the report as "disheartening because it elevates the civil rights of prospective foster parents above the best interests of vulnerable foster care children." He said the private agency's "choice to recruit families who share our beliefs does not keep anyone from fostering" due to other options.

"In order to increase the pool of available foster parents, the system needs all hands on deck, including religious organizations that successfully recruit within their faith communities," Duerk said.

HHS did not respond to a request for comment.

The report recommended that HHS withdraw the waiver, consult child welfare experts, provide more documents to Congress, and resume enforcement of nondiscrimination laws to "serve all Americans, regardless of who they are or what they believe."

Since granting the waiver, HHS has pursued broader rule changes to undo the regulations that prevent religious-based discrimination in foster care placements. Those efforts have received support from South Carolina Republicans, including U.S. Rep. William Timmons, whose Upstate district includes Miracle Hill.

"The faith community has a long and rich history of providing homes for vulnerable children," said Timmons, R-Greenville, in late 2019. "It was unfortunate that the previous administration chose to punish those willing to serve the least fortunate in our communities because of the very same religious beliefs which inspired their charity."

Follow Jamie Lovegrove on Twitter @jslovegrove.

Jamie Lovegrove is a political reporter covering the South Carolina Statehouse, congressional delegation and campaigns. He previously covered Texas politics in Washington for The Dallas Morning News and in Austin for the Texas Tribune.

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