WASHINGTON — The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) has granted a waiver to a South Carolina ministry that was informed by the state Department of Social Services that it could lose its foster license because it only places children in Christian homes as it works with churches throughout the state.
“After reviewing all of the information you have provided, we have determined that requiring your subgrantee, Miracle Hill, to comply with the religious non-discrimination provision [in HHS regulations] would cause a burden to religious beliefs that is unacceptable under RFRA (the Religious Freedom Restoration Act),” the Office for Civil Rights wrote to Gov. Henry McMaster on Wednesday.
It additionally concluded that the “application of the regulatory requirement would also cause a significant programmatic burden for the SC foster care program by impeding the placement of children into foster care.”
McMaster had written to HHS last year to intervene on behalf of Miracle Hill Ministries of Greenville, which had received a letter from the South Carolina Department of Social Services (DSS) advising that it is unlawful under federal regulations to require foster parents to be of a particular faith.
“It is a public policy requirement of HHS that no person otherwise eligible will be excluded from participation in, denied the benefits of, or subjected to discrimination in the administration of HHS programs and services based on non-merit factors such as age, disability, sex, race, color, national origin, religion, gender identity, or sexual orientation,” 75.300c reads. “Recipients must comply with this public policy requirement in the administration of programs supported by HHS awards.”
Miracle Hill Ministries says that it was told that it could lose its license as a foster placement agency if it continues to work only with the churches in the state.
The Christian organization operates several rescue shelters for the homeless, at least two children’s homes and two addiction recovery centers, as well as a foster placement program, which has successfully found families for nearly 250 children. It is reportedly South Carolina’s top provider of foster families for level one children.
“The licensing and participation of faith-based entities in the state foster care system is a constitutionally protected practice,” McMaster wrote to Miracle Hill CEO Reid Lehman last February, according to Greenville News. “It is important that religious organizations not be required to sacrifice the tenets of their faith in order to serve the children of South Carolina.”
This week, HHS agreed with McMaster, and granted a waiver to Miracle Hill and all similarly situated organizations—under the condition that they be required to provide referrals to other organizations should prospective applicants not share their faith.
“This condition is added on the understanding that Miracle Hill, and any other subgrantee making use of this exception, does not object on religious grounds to making such referrals, and therefore, the condition does not implicate additional RFRA concerns,” wrote Steven Wagner, the principal deputy assistant secretary of the Administration for Children and Families.
Lehman, along with Brenda Parks, the director of Miracle Hill’s foster care program, released a video statement upon learning that the situation had been amicably resolved.
“Miracle Hill is a community of joyful Christ-followers who band together to serve the most vulnerable citizens in our state, these children without a home,” Lehman said. “We do this as an outgrowth of our mission, which is [that] homeless children and adults receive food and shelter with compassion, hear the good news of Jesus Christ, and move into healthy relationships and stability.”
“We’re pleased that the 200 children in the care of our families today can be secure, and [that] those families can know that they have the privilege to continue to serve,” he added, “and that opportunities for other faith-based organizations are now protected in our state, which allows them to start caring for more children.”
Lehman acknowledged that other government officials in addition to McMaster had expressed support of the organization, including Rep. Trey Gowdy and Sen. Gary Smith.
“We are so excited that we can continue to serve the Department of Social Services in South Carolina by receiving the referrals when children need a home and having families that are already licensed and can take in these children,” Parks stated. “We give God all the glory.”