In an unusual move, South Carolina Governor Henry McMaster, a long-standing ally of President Donald Trump, has personally intervened with the Department of Health and Human Services to secure a religious exemption from federal nondiscrimination laws for a Christian foster-care-placement agency in his state. Without the exemption, the placement agency, Miracle Hill Ministries, of Greenville, is at risk of losing its license because it refuses to place foster children with non-Christian families. Like other such agencies that participate in state foster-care programs that receive federal funds, Miracle Hill would normally be barred from discriminating on the basis of religion.
McMaster, a Republican who is running for reelection, acted in February after his own state agency, the Department of Social Services (DSS), warned Miracle Hill that its license as a child-placing agency (CPA) was at risk after it had given regulators “reason to believe” that it “intends to refuse to provide its services as a licensed Child Placing Agency to families who are not specifically Christians from a Protestant denomination,” according to documents obtained by the American Civil Liberties Union through a public-records request and shared with The Nation and the Investigative Fund. In addition to requesting federal intervention, McMaster issued an executive order exempting faith-based CPAs from state laws that prohibit religious discrimination.
The possibility that the federal government would permit a taxpayer-funded program to allow a participant to use “religious eligibility criteria” in order to make it a “Christian-only program” is “pretty stunning,” said Leslie Cooper, deputy director of the ACLU’s LGBT & HIV Project. Such an exemption would be akin to the government itself using religious criteria to discriminate against participants in federal programs.
McMaster’s moves come amid escalating conservative efforts at the federal and state level to expand religious exemptions for taxpayer-funded faith-based organizations that provide child-welfare and other social services. While South Carolina has not passed a law permitting such religious discrimination, nine other states—Virginia, South Dakota, North Dakota, Michigan, Texas, Alabama, Oklahoma, Mississippi, and Kansas—have laws that specifically allow child-placement agencies to refuse to place children with families on religious grounds. These efforts have accelerated in the Trump era; five of those nine states passed their laws since 2017.
Civil-rights advocates have criticized these laws as opening the door to a variety of religion-based discrimination, including permitting agencies claiming a religious objection to refuse to serve LGBTQ people, single parents, interfaith couples, and others. The Human Rights Campaign has described these laws as “simply one more effort to write anti-LGBTQ discrimination into law.”