Every child deserves the opportunity to be raised in a stable and supportive household. For foster children and youth, the evidence is clear that they fare much better in family-like settings. The challenge has been, however, that there are far more children in need of foster homes than there are foster parents. That is why the Trump administration’s decision to shrink the pool of available foster parents by allowing faith-based foster care providers to deny prospective foster parents the opportunity to foster or adopt children based solely on their faith is particularly harmful for children in foster care and the foster care system.

In January, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) announced its approval of South Carolina’s request for an exemption from a recently implemented regulation which prohibits federal agencies from providing private entities with federal funding if they practice discrimination on the basis of race, gender, religion, sexual orientation, national origin, and gender identification, and other unlawful classifications. This waiver request, submitted on February 27, 2018, came from South Carolina Governor Henry McMaster after South Carolina notified Miracle Hill Ministries, (a faith-based foster care provider in Greeneville, SC) that their discriminatory practice of denying non-Christian parents from fostering or adopting children jeopardized their federal funding.

The issue of allowing federally-funded, faith-based agencies to refuse to work with certain groups is far from specific to South Carolina. The ACLU is currently representing couples in both Michigan and Philadelphia in cases stemming from the discriminatory practices of child-placement agencies. Both cases involve same-sex couples. (In Dumont v. Lyon, the ACLU filed suits against Michigan for allowing this practice, but in Fulton v. Philadelphia, the ACLU is representing two non-profits in a fight to uphold the city’s ban on such discriminatory practices. These cases have a strong chance of making it to the U.S. Supreme Court in the coming years.

Steven Wagner, the Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary of HHS’ Administration for Children and Families, justified this decision by arguing that the Obama Administration had reached beyond the limits of its power in enacting its 2016 regulation. The regulation prohibits the denial of HHS benefits and programs on “non-merit factors” such as age, disability, sex, race, gender, religion, etc. Wagner bolstered this argument with a 2014 SCOTUS decision which drastically expanded the Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA). The Trump Administration is not merely using the RFRA to exploit a loophole in the Obama-era regulation, but to counteract its effect entirely.

Lynn Johnson, assistant secretary of HHS’ Administration for Children and Families stated that this decision “[. . .] protects minors who are in need of as many options as possible for being placed in loving foster families.” But with a foster care system currently overflowing with children in need of a home, child-placement agencies should not be in the business of denying children a home based on their subjective belief that prospective parents don’t adhere to Christian values.

According to the most recent annual report by the Adoption and Foster Care Analysis and Reporting System (AFCARS), the past five years have marked a steady increase in the number of children and youth living in the foster care system, with 442,995 in foster care in 2017. While the number of entries into foster care may have dropped between the 2016 and the 2017 AFCARS reports, the number of youth exiting the system has also declined.

While the immediate effects this decision may have on children and those trying to foster or adopt them are grim, the real potential for disaster lies in the precedent this sets moving forward. By approving South Carolina’s request to discriminate, the Department of Health and Human Services is opening the door to allow other federally funded agencies to withhold their services from individuals of different faiths, or individuals with lifestyles which don’t adhere to that particular organization’s beliefs. HHS provides subsidies for organizations involved in industries which are crucial to the well-being of millions of Americans, such as health care, social services, and disease prevention and control. Well-established programs such as Head Start, Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF), Home Visiting, and even the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) are all funded by the federal government. The idea of agencies denying individuals any of the benefits of these, and other federal programs based solely on their religious beliefs is disturbing.                      

In no way is this issue unique to South Carolina. Kansas and Oklahoma also passed laws in 2018 which permitted faith-based child welfare agencies to discriminate against foster/adoptive parents on the basis of religion, joining the list of seven other states with such laws in place. According to The Chronicle of Social Change, the following “GOP ‘Trifecta’ States” (states in which the governor is a Republican, and both chambers of the state legislature are controlled by Republicans) are the most likely to see attempts at passing similar bills: Arizona, Arkansas, Florida, Georgia, Idaho, Indiana, Iowa, Kentucky, Missouri, Ohio, Tennessee, Utah, West Virginia, and Wyoming. 

These alarming statistics highlight the growing disparity in the number of children in need of a permanent home, and the number of individuals or couples willing and/or qualified to provide that home. Most taxpaying Americans would be outraged to learn that their hard-earned money is being spent to support agencies that actively and openly discriminate based on their faith or lifestyle. Denying children access to a safe and supportive home based on the religion, race, or gender of prospective parents not only flies in the face of legal precedent, but is immoral, regressive, and should cause children’s advocates grave concern.

For the sake of children in the foster care system, First Focus Campaign for Children calls on advocates everywhere to contact state and federal lawmakers in order to voice your strong objection to this waiver approval and all other discriminatory acts which reduce the number of suitable foster parents.