GREENVILLE — As he looks to mobilize support in the traditional conservative stronghold of the Upstate, Gov. Henry McMaster went to bat again this week for a Greenville foster care agency that denies services to same-sex couples and non-Christian families.
McMaster signed an executive order in March directing the S.C. Department of Social Services not to penalize such organizations as Greenville-based Miracle Hill Ministries that say they are following their deeply held religious beliefs by limiting their services, even though it goes against Obama-era anti-discrimination federal guidelines.
That policy was encoded into state law in July when a similar clause was inserted into the state budget that passed through the Legislature.
To McMaster, the issue is a simple matter of religious freedom. He joins many Republicans around the country who have rallied behind business owners and faith groups that want to exclude certain groups of people based on their deeply held spiritual beliefs, such as a Colorado baker who won a Supreme Court case after refusing to make a cake for a gay wedding.
"Miracle Hill is a Christian organization," McMaster said this week after awarding Miracle Hill CEO Reid Lehman with the Order of the Palmetto, the state's highest civilian award, for his work in the community. "They see a great benefit in those foster families being Christian, and there's nothing in the world wrong with that."
But LGBTQ advocates were outraged, arguing the policy unconstitutionally discriminates against same-sex couples.
State Rep. James Smith, the Democratic nominee for governor, said he would not have signed McMaster's executive order and would have vetoed the measure that made it state law.
"This time, it’s gay couples being told they are less than others. Tomorrow it will be someone else with this governor," Smith said. "We should not leave children in foster care or orphanages when there are stable, loving homes that would welcome them. That is wrong on every level."
The split between Smith and McMaster poses real implications for Miracle Hill. Lehman said that if the state government compels the agency to serve families of other religions or sexual orientations, Miracle Hill will be forced to choose between either shutting down or violating their deeply held religious beliefs.
While critics contend that Miracle Hill could be exacerbating the state's shortage of foster families by limiting their services, Lehman argues that the organization's Christian identity actually encourages potential volunteers to step forward.
"For many, a religious motivation, a sense that God wants me to do this, is the primary reason they volunteer," Lehman said. "It's so much easier for them to become foster families if they're partnering with an organization that understands them and shares their values."
SC Equality, the state's leading LGBTQ advocacy group, plans to file a lawsuit to stop the exemption. Lawyers are vetting potential plaintiffs, but there is no timetable to file a complaint, according to SC Equality Executive Director Jeff Ayers.
"We're seeking the best approach," he said.
Republican strategists say the polarizing issue could help McMaster make up for a poor showing in the evangelical heartland of the Upstate during a contentious GOP primary.
En route to the Republican nomination, the governor lost six of the deep-red region's 10 counties in a runoff against political newcomer John Warren. That included a 42-point beatdown in Greenville County, home to the state's largest pocket of Republican voters.
"The biggest threat is the base getting complacent," said Randy Page, a veteran of three governor and lieutenant governor administrations who is chief of staff of Greenville's Bob Jones University. "The Democratic candidate for governor is one of the best they have fielded for a while. He could make things close."
In the 2016 presidential election, Donald Trump won Greenville County by 25 percent and Spartanburg County by 30 percent over Democrat Hillary Clinton, much higher than his 14-point overall margin of victory in South Carolina.
Greenville GOP Chairman Nate Leupp said McMaster's struggles in the Upstate primary had less to do with evangelical voters disliking him than excitement about Warren, an Upstate native.
"He won't have a problem securing the Upstate voters, they just were giving their primary vote to someone from Greenville," Leupp said. But he added that the assistance McMaster has given to Miracle Hill could remind voters who care about religious freedom that he will stand up for them.
McMaster's visit to Miracle Hill on Monday came just hours before U.S. Rep. Jeff Duncan's annual Faith and Freedom BBQ fundraiser, where many conservatives harped on the importance of Christian values and religious liberty.
"I think there's a large silent majority of folks out there that do feel very passionately about this issue, that do take this into consideration when they step into the voting booth," said state Rep. Garry Smith, a Simpsonville Republican who introduced the budget proviso to allow Miracle Hill to exclusively serve Christian families.
S.C. Democratic Party Chairman Trav Robertson argued the GOP primary results showed Greenville voters don't appreciate "political pandering" and will see through it.
"The people of Greenville County have become an international community that respects the rights of people everywhere and in every walk of life, as does the Democratic Party," Robertson said. "At the end of the day, if you've got a family — it doesn't matter if they're gay, straight, black, white — that is willing to love and nurture a child, that's all that matters."
In a Winthrop University poll of South Carolinians earlier this year, 60 percent said they believe homosexuality should be accepted by society. But the same poll found that 57 percent believe their church should preserve its traditional beliefs and practices, rather than adopting more modern views.