Every Child Deserves a Family Act Introduced in Congress

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June 5, 2019

Today, the Every Child Deserves a Family (ECDF) Act of 2019 was introduced in the U.S. House of Representatives by Congressman John Lewis (D-GA). The companion Senate bill, led by Senator Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY) will follow soon. The ECDF Act promotes the best interests of children by prohibiting discrimination by federally-funded child welfare agencies against children, families, and individuals on the basis of religion, sex (including sexual orientation and gender identity), and marital status. Eliminating discrimination against relatives and those seeking to foster and adopt will allow more children to have loving homes while in foster care.

Our nation is currently experiencing a shortage of homes available for young people who need them. There are more than 440,000 children in foster care across the country, and each year 20,000 children age out of the system without a permanent family. This crisis is exacerbated by laws or policies in eight states which allow taxpayer-funded, state-contracted foster and adoption agencies to turn away qualified families who do not meet the agency’s religious litmus test, denying foster children the loving homes they desperately need.

Last week, Lambda Legal, the ACLU, the ACLU of South Carolina, and South Carolina Equality Federation sued the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) and the State of South Carolina for permitting government-funded foster agencies to discriminate. Our plaintiffs, Eden Rogers and Brandy Welch, are a married lesbian couple who were turned away from fostering children because they don’t align with Miracle Hill Ministries’ – the largest foster care agency in the state – narrow set of religious beliefs about who is suitable to parent.

Despite accepting federal and state government funds to screen foster parent applicants, Miracle Hill Ministries excludes same-sex couples regardless of their faith. In order to apply to foster children through Miracle Hill Ministries, families must check a box stating that they agree with the agency’s doctrinal statement, which includes “that God’s design for marriage is the legal joining of one man and one woman in a life-long covenant relationship.” Also, Miracle Hill Ministries will only work with heterosexual evangelical Protestant Christians and has refused to allow Jewish and Catholic families to foster and volunteer with the children in their care.

Last year, South Carolina’s Department of Social Services (DSS) sought to require Miracle Hill Ministries to comply with federal and state nondiscrimination rules, but rather than enforce the law, Governor Henry McMaster stepped in and requested a waiver from the federal government. Lambda Legal and 76 national and local civil rights, child welfare, and faith organizations sent a letter urging HHS not to grant South Carolina’s request and emphasizing its potential impact on LGBT people. But in January, the Trump administration granted the waiver, permitting faith-based agencies in South Carolina to discriminate on the basis of religion.

The ECDF Act would create a prohibition in federal statute explicitly and clearly prohibiting just the type of discrimination Eden and Brandy confronted and guarantee that LGBTQ youth (who make up 20% of all children in foster care) are protected from harmful discrimination, including so-called conversion therapy and have access to much-needed supportive resources. Finally, the Act will require that federally-funded child welfare service providers be trained to affirm the complex identities of youth – including their sexual orientation, gender identity, and gender expression, as well as their race, ethnicity, and religion.

Lambda Legal is proud to be a founding member of the Every Child Deserves a Family Campaign and co-chair of the ECDF state coalition with Family Equality Council. We applaud this critical step to protect youth and families and thank Congressman Lewis for his sponsorship of ECDF and leadership and dedication on behalf of youth in the child welfare system, families touched by child welfare services, and prospective adoptive and foster parents.  

For more information on Miracle Hill Ministries and the HHS waiver, click here. You can also read about our Marouf v. Azar suit, Lambda Legal’s case on behalf of a married same-sex couple who were turned away by a government-funded, faith-based agency when they tried to foster a refugee child. Lambda Legal’s friend-of-the-court brief in Fulton v. City of Philadelphia, the appeal filed with the Third Circuit by Catholic Social Services seeking a license to discriminate and an exemption to Philadelphia’s Fair Practices Ordinance, is also worth a read.