Social Services, Taxpayer Dollars And Religious Freedom: A Balancing Act
Last year, a South Carolina faith-based organization turned away a couple that wanted to become foster parents. Why? The couple was Jewish, and Miracle Hill Ministries has been clear for years that they will accept only Christian parents into its foster care program. Miracle Hill also received nearly $600,000 in state and federal funding in the last fiscal year.
Now, they’re at risk of losing their license and that funding. But South Carolina Gov. Henry McMaster has asked the Trump administration to grant Miracle Hill a nondiscrimination waiver, saying that the group and others like it could be shut out of providing any foster care assistance if they’re asked to accept non-Christian parents.
It’s the latest tension in the long-running debate over religious freedom and government social services, especially when those faith-based services get taxpayer dollars. On Point, Thursday, we took a closer look at how church and state clash when it comes to federal funding for adoption and social services.
Washington Post reporter Laura Meckler, Robin Fretwell Wilson, professor of law at the University of Illinois College of Law, Jedd Medefind, president of the Christian Alliance for Orphans, and Maggie Garrett, vice president for public policy for Americans United for Separation of Church and State joined.
On the how to make sense of the waiver request
Jedd Medefind: The goal should be diversity in the public square, whether in our public discussions and debates or in our child welfare system. The more diverse partners we have, each with their unique strengths and viewpoints, is really key to the greatness of the American experiment. I really affirm that. I think, though, the way that we pursue that isn't necessarily to force individual groups to sacrifice their distinctives. Rather, it's to find ways to invite them in with those distinctives intact. I think a huge part of it is focusing on who are we servicing here. In the foster system, it's the children that are the beneficiaries. They're the ones who have experienced hurt, neglect, abuse, and we're trying to serve them. While foster parents play a critical role in that, I'm a foster parent myself, we're not the beneficiaries. When Miracle Hill is choosing to, in a sense, bring in their volunteers, their employees, they should have a right to choose people who share their fate."
On whether withholding federal funding from faith-based organizations would end up harming more children
Maggie Garrett: "It's not punitive. No one has a right to government money, no one has a right to perform government services. They're seeking money from the government to perform a service, and if you do that, you have to go by the rules that everyone else goes by. It's not punitive, it's actually treating you the same as everybody else. We have long ago decided that in our civil rights laws, the answer isn't, 'You can go down the street to another restaurant. You can go down the street to another government agent who will provide you your marriage license.' That's not the way this works. There is a dignity harm here. And if you are getting government money, if it is a government service, you shouldn't be told, 'Go down the street where someone else will deal with you.' And that is what is happening here. If you take government funds, you have to go by the values of our government, which is don't discriminate with our money."
"If you take government funds, you have to go by the values of our government, which is don't discriminate with our money."Maggie Garrett
On the potential way forward
Robin Fretwell Wilson: "Right now, agencies don't get paid for anything until a child gets placed. So they do all of these first steps, identifying a family, training a family, home-studying the family and then what I call the 'I Bless You' moment, like certifying that family, and saying, 'OK, you're a proper family.' Then they engage with the state, looking for a home and matching a child up to a home when there's a rupture in their family. Those early steps are where a lot of the problems are. Later steps are not the issue for most agencies. Miracle Hill may be different from this, I'm not positive.
"We do this same thing, though, with early childhood development. We give a certificate to families that they can spend on what's basically daycare. So the child could go to a Lutheran school, they could go to a Montessori, you could spend your certificate with grandma if she's the best person to take care of your child, and what's important about that is the family is the beneficiary of dollars from the U.S. government. But they're also the decision-maker about who's going to provide that specific service. They're not forced through a choke point, they're not winners and losers chosen by the state. Instead the family decides who best serves them.
"I think a huge part of it is focusing on who are we servicing here. In the foster system, it's the children that are the beneficiaries."Jedd Medefind
"For that to work, you don't want to have people stumbling into an agency that's going to tell them to get lost. I call those moments of ugliness. And I just think they're heartbreaking and tragic. You're going to have to have the state explain to people that they have this ability to direct themselves to agencies to help them, and then we just have better matches. That keeps all hands on deck and families are treated with dignity. I think for there to be this kind of dignitary harm in this process is really, really awful. We just need to interpose the state between these agencies and empower families."
Alex Schroeder adapted this interview for the web.