South Carolina

Same-sex couple sues SC after religious ministry says they cannot foster children

Greenville couple Brandy Welch (left) and Eden Rogers (right), were hoping to become foster parents but were turned away by an Upstate faith-based foster-care agency for failing to meet its religious criteria. Now they are suing the state and the Trump administration.
Greenville couple Brandy Welch (left) and Eden Rogers (right), were hoping to become foster parents but were turned away by an Upstate faith-based foster-care agency for failing to meet its religious criteria. Now they are suing the state and the Trump administration.

A same-sex Greenville couple says they were hoping to become foster parents but were turned away by an Upstate faith-based foster-care agency for failing to meet its religious criteria. Now they are suing the state and the Trump administration.

Attorneys for the American Civil Liberties Union, Lambda Legal and South Carolina Equality Coalition on Thursday filed a federal lawsuit on behalf of Eden Rogers and Brandy Welch against the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services and the State of South Carolina.

The attorneys discussed the lawsuit in a conference call Thursday with reporters.

“There is no government interest furthered by denying children access to good parents, based on a religious test,” ACLU attorney Leslie Cooper said. “(It) denies our most vulnerable children of families they desperately need ... and it also turns our cherished First Amendment freedoms on their head to allow the use of a religious test for participation in government programs.”

The lesbian couple’s application to serve as foster parents was denied by Miracle Hill Ministries, after Republican S.C. Gov. Henry McMaster requested and HHS granted a waiver of federal nondiscrimination rules, the lawsuit says.

“Being denied right away felt like a huge blow to the gut. It literally made me feel ill,” Welch, 40, said. “I can’t understand why anyone would be dismissed like this based on their faith or sexual orientation, when there are so many children needing foster homes.”

The waiver enables Miracle Hill Ministries to continue its foster-care program, which caters to evangelical protestant Christians and heterosexual couples. The waiver was requested to head off Miracle Hill losing its license and federal funding under a regulation put in place by the Obama Administration, according to attorneys. The rule barred publicly funded foster-care agencies from serving specific religions.

Last week, Axios reported the Trump administration is considering a formal policy that would roll back the Obama-era nondiscrimination rule.

Supporters, including McMaster, say the waiver allows the S.C. Department of Social Services to license faith-based child-placement agencies without requiring them to abandon their religious beliefs.

But opponents argue it allows taxpayer-funded discrimination based on religion by allowing federally-funded adoption and foster-care agencies to turn away same-sex couples and others who don’t share the organization’s Christian beliefs.

An online application form requires parents to indicate they agree with Miracle Hill’s doctrinal statement, according to the lawsuit.

The statement says the agency believes “God’s design for marriage is the legal joining of one man and one woman in a life-long covenant relationship. God creates each person as either male or female, and these two distinct, complementary sexes, together reflect the image and nature of God.”

According to the Greenville News, Miracle Hill also turned away a Jewish woman because she didn’t share the organization’s Christian beliefs.

Reid Lehman, president and chief executive of Miracle Hill Ministries, said the agency encouraged Rogers and Welch to volunteer in other ways with its ministry, and provided information of several other foster agencies in the Upstate “that will partner with any qualified individual or couple.”

“Faith-based foster care agencies are working hard to end the foster care crisis and should be allowed to participate in the child welfare system while maintaining their religious convictions and practices,” Lehman said in a statement. ”It is in the best interest of South Carolina’s children to allow as many unique foster care agencies as possible to increase the pool of available foster homes.”

Welch said faith is part of her family’s life, and “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.”

She and Rogers, 33, an educator, are the parents of two daughters, ages 7 and 10, and told reporters they want to open their home to foster children in part because of Rogers’ own family experiences helping raise her siblings.

Eden Rogers and Brandy Welch family photo.jpg
Nadia Awad (Lambda Legal Digital)

In requesting the waiver, McMaster argued that, without the help of faith-based organizations, the state would have difficulty placing children in need of foster care. More than 4,700 children are in foster care, and the state needs 1,500 new foster homes.

About 13% of S.C. foster families were supported by Miracle Hill at the start of 2019. Those families cared for about 5% of the state’s 4,624 foster children at the time, according to the S.C. Department of Social Services. Updated numbers were not available.

South Carolina licenses 11 child-placement agencies with religious affiliations.

Social Services declined to comment on the lawsuit and referred questions to the governor’s office.

“Anybody who is willing to open their home to a child in need is providing a critically important service,” McMaster spokesman Brian Symmes said. “Governor McMaster’s position has nothing to do with keeping anyone from fostering children and has everything to do with protecting Miracle Hill’s ability to exercise its own religious freedom.”

HHS officials stress would-be foster parents continue to have other options in South Carolina. As a condition of the waiver, federally funded faith-based groups will continue to be required to refer any potential foster-care families that they do not accept to other placement agencies or to Social Services.

Other agencies in the Greenville area, though, do not provide the same services and support as Miracle Hill, South Carolina’s largest state-contracted foster care agency, according to the lawsuit.

“Such denial creates a practical barrier to fostering, as not all foster care agencies are equivalent or offer the same services, and also stigmatizes these families, branding them as inferior and less worthy of serving as foster parents,” according to the complaint.

ACLU and Lambda Legal attorneys, too, argue the practice limits the diversity of family options for children, and say South Carolina and the Trump administration “are supporting the impermissible proselytization of children in state custody.”

“When families are turned away because they are Jewish, Catholic, Muslim or members of any other faith besides evangelical Protestant Christianity, that reduces opportunities for children of those faiths to be placed with a family that shares their faith,” according to the complaint.

A federal HHS spokesman said the agency does not comment on pending litigation, and referred a reporter to the agency’s statement granting South Carolina the waiver.

In that statement, Lynn Johnson, the assistant secretary for HHS’s Administration for Children and Families, said the waiver “protects minors who are in need of as many options as possible for being placed in loving foster families.” Johnson continued: “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.”

Rev. Jeremy Rutledge, senior pastor at Circular Congregational Church in Charleston, which ministers to both heterosexual and same-sex couples, opposes the waiver.

“I think it’s antithetical to the notion of religious liberty to begin excluding people from government programs based on their failure to meet some religious test,” Rutledge told reporters after the lawsuit announcement. “I think government programs should serve all Americans, regardless of their faith or philosophy.”

He said what troubles him the most about the waiver is “we are discriminating against families who are standing ready to help.”

“We should be expressing our gratitude and our appreciation to those families,” Rutledge said. “Not getting in the way and discriminating against them.”

Editor’s note: This story has been updated to clarify that the Greenville couple was seeking to become foster parents, not adoptive parents.

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Tom Barton covers South Carolina politics for The State. He has spent more than a decade covering local governments and politicians in Iowa and South Carolina, and has won awards from the S.C. Press Association and Iowa Newspaper Association for public service and feature writing.