The Trump administration is considering whether to grant a South Carolina request that would effectively allow faith-based foster care agencies in the state the ability to deny Jewish parents from fostering children in its network. The argument, from the state and from the agency, is that the federal Religious Freedom Restoration Act should not force a Protestant group to work with Jewish people if it violates a tenet of their faith.

The case being made by South Carolina is an extension of the debate around RFRA, which is more commonly associated with discrimination against LGBTQ people, but by no means applies exclusively to that group.

If granted, the exemption would allow Miracle Hill Ministries, a Protestant social service agency working in the state’s northwest region, to continue receiving federal dollars while “recruiting Christian foster families,” which it has been doing since 1988, according to its website. That discrimination would apply not just to Jewish parents, but also to parents who are Muslim, Catholic, Unitarian, atheist, agnostic or other some other non-Protestant Christian denomination.

Miracle Hill covers Greenville, Pickens and Spartanburg counties, and its foster care services have becoming increasingly in demand as an opioid epidemic has torn through a generation of young parents. The fight over its policy has been written about in the local press and was first covered nationally by The Nation.

The request has been made to the Department of Health and Human Services. The agency has been quietly taken over by hardline evangelical activists, a perk for their unwavering support of Trump’s presidential bid and his administration.

Miracle Hill has told the local press that while they themselves will not place children with families who don’t meet their standards, they refer them to agencies that will. But as the provider with the region’s highest quality of service, making referrals means sending people to deal directly with the state Department of Social Services, or to agencies in other parts of the state that are several hours away by car.

Beth Lesser is a Jewish parent who was turned away by Miracle Hill. “Understand, in the upstate of South Carolina, if you want to be a foster parent or a mentor, there’s DSS, which is the government. And there’s Miracle Hill. There really isn’t anybody else,” Lesser told The Intercept.

When she still lived in Greenville, Lesser participated in a three-day training co-hosted by Miracle Hill and Fostering Great Ideas, another regional child welfare agency. On the third day, two officials running the training, David White of Fostering Great Ideas, as well as a Miracle Hill representative, told the group that non-Protestants wouldn’t be able to mentor with Miracle Hill, let alone foster a child.

“I’ve never felt that sort of discrimination before.”

“I’ve never felt that sort of discrimination before,” she said. “Once they get [the children] in one of their group homes, they don’t let non-Christian Protestants mentor them, foster them, or anything.” Lesser couldn’t recall the name of the Miracle Hill representative, but White confirmed the exchange to The Intercept, saying that they were explaining Miracle Hill’s policy, and that his agency, FGI, does not itself discriminate. Miracle Hill did not respond to a request for comment.

Originally from New Jersey, she and her husband lived in Florida before moving to South Carolina for 18 years. They’ve fostered and mentored other children through various agencies, and have since returned to Florida.

“What Miracle Hill does, is they scoop up these kids from foster care, and they have these group homes. And then once they get the kids in there, their whole objective is to indoctrinate them into their brand of Christianity,” Lesser said.

Lesser said that while she and her husband were licensed foster parents while they lived in South Carolina, they “hardly got any calls” to foster children.

“I think that if Trump knew about this in detail, he wouldn’t be for it,” Lesser said. “Because he’s not a religious nut.” She’s a proud supporter of the president — and, she offered, she wanted Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh to be confirmed.

For the state’s DSS, the practice of discriminating against Jewish families was too much. As early as January 2018, DSS sent a letter raising concerns that the agency was violating federal and state nondiscrimination laws, as well as DSS policy, by requiring applicants to meet strict religious standards — namely, being a practicing Protestant and not being in a same-sex relationship. The letter was obtained through a Freedom of Information Act request by the American Civil Liberties Union, which provided it to The Intercept.

“In telephone conversations with the Department, Miracle Hill has given the Department reason to believe Miracle Hill intends to refuse to provide its services as a licensed Child Placing Agency to families who are not specifically Christians from a Protestant denomination,” the letter reads, offering Miracle Hill 30 days to resolve the issue and 30 more days to implement a new approach.

But Miracle Hill, which is closely allied with the top GOP leadership of the state, had a different response: It went to lawmakers and the governor, who changed state law to shield Miracle Hill from DSS. The state officials in turn pleaded Miracle Hill’s case to the Trump administration.

Miracle Hill is one of 11 Christian-affiliated foster care agencies serving over 4,000 children in foster care and group homes in South Carolina, a the state that, like many others, has historically had a shortage of foster homes.

It is the only one of those Christian agencies, according to DSS, with religious qualifications for parents.

David White is the founder and CEO of Fostering Great Ideas, a nonprofit working to improve the child welfare system, though it does not itself foster children. FGI works closely with Miracle Hill in South Carolina and is expanding to Denver, but does not share its recruitment policy. He argued that families rejected by Miracle Hill do have other places to go. There are 11 foster care providers in Greenville, according to FGI data pulled from DSS. Seven of those provide therapeutic as opposed to regular care for children.

A number of agencies do allow gay couples or Catholic families to foster, White said. “There is the ability to have an intelligent conversation, versus a ‘we’re right, you’re wrong’ — ’cause it is subtle. It’s very difficult. And I know the CEO of Miracle Hill. I know him well. And he is not a bigot. And that’s what makes this a human story.”

The organization’s last provisional state license expired July 25, and DSS won’t issue a permanent one until Miracle Hill proves it’s not discriminating — or DSS gets a federal order to make an exception.

Such an order is already drafted. It’s awaiting final signature on the desk of Secretary Alex Azar at the Department of Health and Human Services. If granted, Miracle Hill will be allowed to continue denying qualified families from adopting kids based on religious views.

The ACLU is litigating a similar case in Philadelphia against Catholic Social Services. Bethany Christian Services, another Philadelphia agency originally involved in the complaint, has since stated it will comply with federal law and accept same-sex couples. Philadelphia’s DHS has since resumed doing business with the agency. CSS is now suing DHS.

“There are many, many faith-based agencies doing work in the child welfare field,” Leslie Cooper, deputy director for the ACLU LGBT & HIV Project told The Intercept. “And doing really important work. And regardless of their religious belief, the vast majority comply with professional child welfare standards  … which include: you accept all qualified families; you don’t discriminate based on characteristics unrelated to ability to care for a child.”

“It’s pretty outrageous, in my view, that the states are actually passing laws to authorize this.”

The few agencies unwilling to do that, Cooper said, are “seeking to maintain state contracts for many millions of dollars to provide this government service to wards of the state — the service being, find families for these children who desperately need them. But ‘Oh, we’re gonna throw away the ones that don’t meet our religious test.’ Even though they may be fantastic parents and may be the only family for a particular child, that that child is waiting for. So it’s pretty outrageous, in my view, that the states are actually passing laws to authorize this.”

Those states include Alabama, Michigan, Texas, South Carolina, Oklahoma, North Dakota, South Dakota, and Mississippi.

Even in the Miracle Hill’s online application for interested foster parents it’s clear they intend for children to be raised in a Christian home.

In addition to basic information, the application asks for “denominational affiliation,” a pastor’s name, phone number, and “a brief, personal testimony of your faith/salvation,” and that of a spouse, if applicable. If you and your partner are the same sex, Miracle Hill will not allow you to adopt children in their network, according to lawyers, foster parents and employees at agencies who have worked closely with Miracle Hill.

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A screenshot of a portion of Miracle Hill’s foster care inquiry form on their website.

Screenshot: The Intercept

Lesser said DSS eventually asked her to foster a child with another agency in the state, but she was never asked to foster with Miracle Hill. But she said working directly with DSS — as opposed to through a service provider like Miracle Hill — is often overly burdensome, bureaucratic and ultimately ineffective. Advocates agree. So does another Jewish foster mother, Lydia Currie, who tried, unsuccessfully, to work with Miracle Hill.

That’s in part because Miracle Hill really does good work. And DSS in South Carolina, unlike in many other states, handles not only child welfare but disaster response and emergency management. They’re currently orchestrating the state’s response to Hurricane Michael.

“Your worker at Miracle Hill picks up the phone,” Currie told the Intercept. “Which workers at DSS do not do.”

A Jewish foster mother who lived in Greenville until moving to Philadelphia this year, Currie adopted twice through DSS, in 2012 and again in 2018.

“DSS is chronically understaffed, chronically underfunded, chronically over-caseloaded. And that’s why they dump so much on Miracle Hill,” Currie said.

“The standard of service offered by DSS workers is significantly inferior to what’s offered at Miracle Hill. The support for foster families is significantly inferior,” Currie said. “It is a tremendous barrier to access for people who aren’t highly educated and highly motivated.”

She dealt extensively with Miracle Hill during her time in South Carolina, both as a prospective parent and as a guardian ad litem. She and her husband have three biological children. After deciding to grow their family, they adopted two children, in 2012 and in 2018, who spent extended periods of time in Christian orphanages.

“Miracle Hill offers continuity of services,” she continued. “It creates a burden upon non-narrowly defined Protestant Christians that does not exist for families who pass their religious test for the use of public funds.”

“It was a doctrinal test, they made it very clear.”

“It was a doctrinal test, they made it very clear,” she said, recalling the first time she saw the agency’s foster parent application. “In other situations I’ve had, Christian agencies have been happy to work with Jewish families, when it’s a matter of at-risk children. Particularly if they take public funding,” she said.

“The foster adoption world is full of Christian organizations that work with any fit and willing foster parents. So Miracle Hill is very much an outlier on that in an intensely creepy way.”

Miracle Hill’s practices discriminate against Christians too — just not those who are Protestant, she said. “I also know a Catholic family that was excluded from fostering with Miracle Hill,” Currie said. “And they’re mad too.” Lesser said that she had also learned of a Catholic family turned away.

That caveat is a particular point of turmoil for Miracle Hill’s president and CEO, Reid Lehman, according to FGI’s White. “I believe that Reid has definitively, definitely wrestled with this. I know he has. And he would like to have that ability to have that conversation with you, I would imagine.” Lehman did not respond to requests for comment by the time of publication.

On top of that, Currie said, the agency “practices coercive Protestant Christianity.”

“Many, many children who have absolutely no religious affiliation, or have a religious affiliation other than Christianity, are placed by the Department of Social Services with Miracle Hill,” Currie said. That means, Currie said, “effectively mandatory Sunday school, mandatory after school Bible study. Mandatory prayer. Including teenagers, including children for whom this is terrifyingly inappropriate.”

“Church and state are so co-mingled,” Currie went on, “that I don’t think it would survive a constitutional test. No one’s interested in giving it one. It needs one actually. And Miracle Hill might be a good test case.”

Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump speaks with South Carolina Lieutenant Governor Henry Dargan McMaster (L) during a press conference at the Hanahan Town Hall in Hanahan, South Carolina, February 15, 2016.  / AFP / JIM WATSON        (Photo credit should read JIM WATSON/AFP/Getty Images)

Then-Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump speaks with South Carolina Lt. Gov. Henry Dargan McMaster, left, during a press conference in Hanahan, S.C., on Feb. 15, 2016.

Photo: Jim Watson/AFP/Getty Images

The Protestant agency may well see its request granted.

The Trump administration has made clear that religious freedom, at least for those of the Christian faith, is a priority. And following Governor Henry McMaster’s March executive order supporting Miracle Hill, tucked into a 2018-2019 budget proviso bill that passed the General Assembly on June 28, South Carolina added a clause that would keep DSS from discriminating or taking “any adverse action against a faith-based child placing agency” on the basis that the agency is declining services that conflict with its faith.

McMaster personally awarded Miracle Hill’s president and CEO Reid Lehman the state’s highest civilian honor this summer. Senator Lindsey Graham’s office in June also made appeals to HHS to speed up process.

Lehman reached McMaster’s office after initial appeals to South Carolina State Rep. Garry R. Smith, with whom he was in contact regarding the state’s budget proviso that weakened DSS’s power to scrutinize his agency. Lehman asked Smith to press McMaster, suggesting “a call [to HHS] from the Governor’s office” reminding them “that the federal response is needed to put this to bed.”

Both Lehman and Miracle Hill’s spokesperson did not respond to multiple calls, emails and voicemails from The Intercept.

The president in January established a new HHS division within the Office for Civil Rights (OCR) dedicated to “restore federal enforcement of our nation’s laws that protect the fundamental and unalienable rights of conscience and religious freedom.”

HHS officials at a Heritage Foundation event in May “directly solicited faith-based providers to request a RFRA exemption if they feel that they are experiencing a ‘burden’ to their religious expression from federal nondiscrimination laws,” as described in an October 3 letter from Sen. Ron Wyden to Azar opposing the contested waiver.

HHS has acknowledged receipt of the letter, but has not responded, a Wyden aide told the Intercept.

HHS officials have spoken out about a department culture that favors Christianity over other faiths, a phenomenon The Intercept’s Rachel Cohen reported on last year.

Where the waiver stands now is unclear. ACF told The Intercept that HHS does not comment on pending policy decisions. The question may come down to whose faith matters. “The whole faith-based initiative under [former President George W.] Bush has all kinds of language in there about when you’re providing federally funded social services, that you can’t discriminate against people based on faith,” the ACLU’s Cooper said, “And these are federally funded social services.”