HHS Allows South Carolina Foster Care Group to Keep Policy Only Accepting Churchgoing Protestants

A room in one of Miracle Hill’s three group homes for children in foster care in South Carolina. RNS photo by Yonat Shimron

The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services has issued an exemption that allows all foster care agencies in South Carolina to disregard an Obama-era regulation barring religious discrimination in federally funded foster care programs.

The exemption will allow Miracle Hill Ministries, a Greenville-based Christian ministry, to continue to accept only Protestant, churchgoing parents to its federally funded foster care program, which recruits, supports and helps train parents to be licensed by the state to foster children.

“By granting this request to South Carolina, HHS is putting foster care capacity needs ahead of burdensome regulations that are in conflict with the law,” said Lynn Johnson, assistant secretary for the Administration for Children and Families at the Department of Health and Human Services, in a statement issued Wednesday (Jan. 23).

A sprawling ministry that runs homeless shelters, thrift stores, drug-recovery programs and a foster care agency, Miracle Hill is the largest provider of care to the needy in the Upstate, the 10-county westernmost region of South Carolina, along the Interstate 85 corridor.

The ministry employs 352 people and has an annual budget of $17 million. That includes about $600,000 in state and federal money for  its foster care program.

While the ministry serves children of all faiths, it will only recruit, support and help train Protestant parents because it considers them to have a “spiritual influence” on children.

“We are an arm of the Protestant church,” said Reid Lehman, Miracle Hill’s CEO. “We exist to be a mission arm of Protestant churches and to proclaim Protestant faith. It’s not a judgment or an exclusion. It’s simply that we’re going to be consistent with that.”

Miracle Hill CEO Reid Lehman, left, and Brenda Parks, foster care director, announce the HHS ruling in a video. Photo courtesy of Miracle Hill

The government exemption, or waiver, was requested by Gov. Henry McMaster after he learned that the state had informed Miracle Hill that it might be violating the new law if it continued to deny non-Protestant couples from its foster care program.

But the ministry received a raft of negative publicity after a Jewish woman named Beth Lesser complained that Miracle Hill would not allow her to mentor a child living in one of its three group foster homes.

Mentors, like foster parents and other Miracle Hill employees, must sign a doctrinal statementconfessing belief in Jesus.

Under Miracle Hill’s policies, not only Jews are rejected. Muslims, Hindus and atheists are also barred from fostering or mentoring children in the nonprofit’s programs; so too are Catholics.

“I am greatly blessed and much relieved that after a very long wait a decision has been rendered,” Lehman said in response to Wednesday’s decision.

The exemption comes as South Carolina’s foster care system faces a crisis.

A chapel on the grounds of a Miracle Hill group home for children in Pickens County, S.C. RNS photo by Yonat Shimron

The state has too many children in foster care and too few families to care for them. It is under a court mandate to fix chronic problems in the foster care system, including a drastic shortage of foster homes, excessive caseloads and a failure to provide basic and necessary health care to kids.

At last count, there were 4,624 children in foster care but only 2,786 licensed foster providers, according to the state Department of Social Services. Of those, about 230 families have valid licenses through Miracle Hill. The state contracts with 11 foster care agencies.

Until January 2017, foster care agencies and some other federally assisted programs falling under Title VI of the federal code could not deny parents the right to become foster parents on the basis of race, color or national origin. In his final days in office, President Obama expanded the law to include religion, sexual orientation and gender identity.

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Source: Religion News Service