The Trump Administration Just Moved to Allow Discrimination in Foster Care

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January 23, 2019

Today, the Trump-Pence Administration’s Department of Health and Human Services (“HHS”) granted special permission to federally-funded child welfare contract agencies in South Carolina to discriminate against prospective foster and adoptive parents based on their religious beliefs.

HHS granted South Carolina’s Governor Henry McMaster request that taxpayer-funded agencies contracted with the State to provide child welfare services be exempted from federal rules prohibiting discrimination and be allowed to work only with families who meet their religious litmus test.

In addition to violating the principle of separation of church and state, the waiver violates a host of statutory and constitutional protections which apply to children in foster care and allows South Carolina agencies to turn away parents trying to provide children with good homes.

Lambda Legal Youth in Out-Of-Home Care Project Director Currey Cook released the following statement:

“By granting this waiver, the Trump Administration is favoring the religious beliefs of some over the wellbeing and best interests of youth in care, which is the core obligation of the child welfare system. Organizations which receive taxpayer funding and provide government functions, like foster care services, are required to comply with constitutional protections which protect Americans from discrimination. There should not be a special pass around those rules. This is unacceptable and alarming.

“Our federal government should never be in the business of granting taxpayer-funded organizations a license to discriminate, and privileging the religious liberty of certain faiths over the needs of vulnerable children in the foster care system, a disproportionate number of whom are LGBTQ.

“With this waiver, HHS is ignoring its primary responsibility to do what is in the best interest of children. Children in the foster care system are already in need of loving homes if they cannot safely return to their families of origin. To grant special permission to religious organizations to limit the pool of prospective adoptive and foster parents who could provide a home puts already vulnerable children at even greater risk.

“The Trump administration continues to violate the most basic principles of the freedom of religion by allowing these agencies to prioritize their beliefs and ignore nondiscrimination laws.  Freedom of religion is a fundamental value in the United States, but none of our religious beliefs should come at the expense of our children.

"While this waiver is specific to South Carolina and the licensing of foster and adoptive parents, it has enormous implications for the rights and well-being of LGBTQ youth in the child welfare system and religious minority children or those who are not part of any faith community.

“We call on Congress to pass the Every Child Deserves a Family Act to protect our children and ensure our freedom of religion cannot be used as a weapon to discriminate against marginalized communities.”

For more information on Lambda Legal’s advocacy around this issue, please visit the website for the Every Child Deserves a Family Campaign. Lambda Legal is proud to be a founding member of the Campaign and co-chair of the Campaign's state coalition with Family Equality Council.

Read Lambda Legal’s letter to U.S. Health and Human Services (“HHS”) Secretary Alex Azar urging him not to grant South Carolina’s request for an exemption from federal nondiscrimination law.

Read about Marouf v. Azar, Lambda Legal’s case on behalf of a same-sex couple turned away by government-funded, faith-based agency when they tried to foster a refugee child.