McMaster Miracle Hill (copy)

Gov. Henry McMaster visited Miracle Hill Ministries in Greenville on Monday, Aug. 27, 2048, to award CEO Reid Lehman with the Order of the Palmetto. McMaster has worked in recent months to ensure Miracle Hill can continue denying foster care services to same-sex couples and non-Christian families. File/Jamie Lovegrove/Staff

COLUMBIA — Foster care agencies in South Carolina can continue to deny services to same-sex couples and non-Christian families due to their religious views, the federal government ruled Wednesday.

The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services granted Gov. Henry McMaster's request for a waiver allowing faith-based foster care agencies in the state to refuse families who do not follow their religious beliefs.

McMaster's request was intended to protect Greenville-based Miracle Hill Ministries, which serves about 15 percent of the state's foster care families but limits the program to straight Christian families.

The governor and top officials at Miracle Hill argued they are exercising their right to religious freedom.

“By granting this waiver, President (Donald) Trump and (Health and Human Services) Secretary (Alex) Azar have shown the entire world that, as Americans, our fundamental right to practice religion, regardless of our faith, will not be in jeopardy under this administration," McMaster said. 

The waiver drew strong criticism from Americans United for Separation of Church and State, a religious liberty watchdog group based in Washington, D.C., who called it "unconscionable" and warned that the decision could have broader repercussions.

“This is yet another example of the Trump administration using religion to advance a regressive political agenda that harms others," said Americans United President Rachel Laser. "And this time, the target is not only religious minorities but also our most vulnerable children — those in need of loving homes.”

Miracle Hill CEO Reid Lehman said he was "deeply gratified" by the decision to let them keep their foster care license.

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“It’s always been about the license, our right to exist," Lehman said.

Other South Carolina Republicans, including U.S. Sen. Tim Scott and U.S. Rep. Jeff Duncan, offered their support for the decision.

“South Carolina’s voice was heard loud and clear — we will do everything we can to defend those who want to help our most vulnerable," Scott said.

Disagreements over the issue played out in the governor's race last year, when Democratic challenger James Smith said he opposed McMaster's actions.

Follow Jamie Lovegrove on Twitter @jslovegrove.

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