A lesbian couple sued the Department of Health and Human Services and the government of South Carolina on Thursday over provisions that allow foster care agencies in the state to deny prospective parents based on their religion or other religious policies.
The lawsuit was filed by a coalition of civil rights groups on behalf of married couple Eden Rogers and Brandy Welch, including Lambda Legal, the American Civil Liberties Union, the ACLU of South Carolina and the South Carolina Equality Coalition.
Rogers and Welch applied to become foster parents through the Miracle Hill Ministries, South Carolina’s largest state-contracted foster care agency. But HHS in January granted a waiver to federally funded groups in South Carolina allowing them to deny applicants based on their faith or sexual orientation.
Rogers and Welch’s application was denied earlier this month, and Miracle Hill Ministries said it felt “a religious obligation to partner with foster parents who share our beliefs and who are active in a Christian church.”
“We work hard to raise our own two girls in a loving and stable home,” Welch, who has two daughters with Rogers, said in a statement Thursday. “Faith is a part of our family life, so it is hurtful and insulting to us that Miracle Hill’s religious view of what a family must look like deprives foster children of a nurturing, supportive home.”
Rogers and Welch, who have been married for three years, are members of the Greenville Unitarian Universalist Church.
The president of Miracle Hill Ministries, Reid Lehman, said the group had encouraged the couple to work with other foster groups in the state.
“Our unique ability to partner with Christian parents who share our religious convictions has helped to greatly increase the pool of available foster homes,” Lehman told the Greenville News. “We are saddened that Ms. Rogers and Ms. Welch are unwilling to foster children if they cannot do so with Miracle Hill. We would be honored to work with them if they shared our religious convictions in belief and practice, and we’ve encouraged them to volunteer in other ways with our ministry if they would like to do so.”
HHS’ January decision came after South Carolina Gov. Henry McMaster (R) requested faith-based groups that receive federal funding be granted waivers to operate outside of nondiscrimination policies passed under the Obama administration. The Trump administration granted the request, prompting outcry from civil rights groups who likened the decision to state-sponsored discrimination.
“Trump’s HHS and South Carolina should not be permitting foster care agencies that receive taxpayer money to care for wards of the State to disqualify potential foster parents because they don’t conform to a religious litmus test,” Currey Cook, a director at Lambda Legal, said in a statement Thursday. “Agencies have no right to exclude families because of their faith or sexual orientation.”
Lynn Johnson, the assistant secretary for HHS’ Administration for Children and Families, defended the agency’s decision in January, saying the waiver would allow all foster care groups to remain open in South Carolina while protecting religious freedom.
“It protects minors who are in need of as many options as possible for being placed in loving foster families,” Johnson said at the time, according to the Greenville News. “The government should not be in the business of forcing foster care providers to close their doors because of their faith. Religious freedom is a fundamental human right.”