In January of this year, against the backdrop of a dramatic shortage of foster and adoptive homes, the Department of Health and Human Services granted a waiver to South Carolina allowing agencies there to discriminate against people applying to be foster and adoptive parents based on the agencies’ religious beliefs. The waiver request came after Miracle Hill Ministries drew national attention for rejecting potential foster parents because they were Jewish or Catholic. The state’s Department of Social Services, citing state and federal regulations, threatened to revoke Miracle Hill’s license if they continued to require a religious litmus test for taxpayer-funded services. In response, South Carolina Governor Henry McMaster pushed the legislature to override the state policy and applied for a federal waiver, arguing that the religious liberty of faith-based organizations was threatened by regulations preventing federally funded agencies from discriminating against otherwise-qualified foster and adoptive parents based on religion.
The waiver issued by the federal government was hardly an isolated incident. It comes as ten states have laws on the books allowing agencies to turn away prospective foster and adoptive parents based on the agency’s religious beliefs. At the National Prayer Breakfast in February, President Trump alluded to his administration’s support for this practice, referencing a Michigan organization being sued for turning away a same-sex couple. In May, officials in the administration reported that the White House plans either to rescind policies that prevent agencies receiving federal funds from discriminating against same-sex couples or to exempt religious organizations from those rules. In addition to keeping potential foster and adoptive families out of a system that desperately needs them, these actions send a signal to LGBTQ people and religious minorities that they are neither wanted nor welcome as foster or adoptive parents.
Turning away loving, stable families for reasons that have nothing to do with merit or safety is directly opposed to the ideals of the child welfare system. Today, roughly 123,000 children are waiting to be adopted and each year more than 20,000 children age out of foster care having never been adopted. As states work to remove children from group care and place them with families, the need to have more foster homes available for them grows every day. Every day that a child spends in foster care when they could be in a family is a tragedy and it is unconscionable to reject people willing to be those safe, loving families because of their religion or sexual orientation.
The Children’s Defense Fund is proud to endorse the Every Child Deserves a Family Act, which bans discrimination against potential foster parents on the basis of religion, sexual orientation or marital status. The bipartisan bill, introduced by Representatives John Lewis (D-GA) and Jenniffer González-Colón (R-PR) in the House and Senator Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY) in the Senate, will ensure that there is a larger pool of safe, qualified foster and adoptive homes for children who need them. It also bans discrimination on the grounds of religion and sexual orientation for foster children, and requires staff training to make the child welfare system more affirming of the complex social identities of foster youth. Passing this bill will improve the foster care system for all children, especially LGBTQ and religious minority youth who experience especially poor outcomes.
It is critical to recognize the important role that people of faith and faith-based organizations have played and continue to play in addressing the needs of foster youth. Strongly held religious beliefs have called many into the service of protecting and providing for vulnerable children, including many of my colleagues here at the Children’s Defense Fund. But religious beliefs cannot be used as justification for federally funded discrimination, nor can they be put ahead of the best interests of children in the foster care system. The ultimate goal of the child welfare system must be placing children in safe, loving homes – and the Every Child Deserves a Family Act helps us deliver on that goal.