Three key facts about Trump administration allowing religious freedom for S.C. foster care provider

Chelsea Clinton, daughter of Bill and Hillary Clinton, has 2.4 million Twitter followers.

So when the former first daughter tweets, what she says gets attention — be it announcing her pregnancy with a third child or commenting on a news story about a faith-based foster care agency in South Carolina.

I’m certain that Kelsey Dallas, religion writer for the Deseret News in Salt Lake City, didn’t mind the extra clicks that Clinton’s tweet generated for her coverage of a Trump administration decision involving religious freedom — or religious discrimination, depending on one’s perspective.

The lede from Dallas:

The Trump administration on Wednesday made a decision in support of a faith-based foster care agency in South Carolina, announcing that religious organizations are protected by federal religious freedom law and can receive government money even when they won't serve LGBT or non-Christian couples.

"Faith-based organizations that provide foster care services not only perform a great service for their communities, they are exercising a legally protected right to practice their faith through good works. Our federal agency should not — and, under the laws adopted by Congress, cannot — drive faith-motivated foster care providers out of the business of serving children without a compelling government interest," explained a statement from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.

Miracle Hill Ministries, a Christian organization based in Greenville, had been at risk of having to close its foster care program or adjust its screening process for prospective foster parents if HHS didn't grant it a waiver to nondiscrimination law. Miracle Hill, like many conservative, religious foster care agencies, has been under fire for the last year for refusing to work with LGBT couples for religious reasons.

The Trump administration's decision, although long-expected, sparked an outcry among liberal legal activists, who argue that religious freedom shouldn't protect discrimination.

Like the Deseret News, the Washington Post offered a factual, balanced report on the decision, opening its story like this:

The Trump administration said Wednesday it was granting a Christian ministry in South Carolina permission to participate in the federally funded foster-care program, even though the group will work only with Christian families.

The long-standing policy of Miracle Hill Ministries of Greenville violates a regulation, put into place in the closing days of the Obama administration, that bars discrimination on the basis of religion by groups receiving money from the Department of Health and Human Services.

About a year ago, the South Carolina Department of Social Services learned of Miracle Hill’s policy, notified the group it was in violation of federal law and downgraded it to a provisional license. Gov. Henry McMaster (R) then asked HHS for a waiver.

On Wednesday, HHS said it would grant the waiver, days before the group’s provisional license was set to expire. The department argued that the Obama-era regulation was ill-conceived and that some of its requirements “are not reflected” in the underlying statute.

In reading a variety of news accounts of the decision — including this one by the The Associated Press —  I was struck by certain details that seem important but weren’t reflected in every story.

For journalists and readers following this development, here are three key facts to note:

1. The state of South Carolina requires Miracle Hill Ministries to refer potential clients that it won’t serve to other providers.

Here is how The State newspaper in Columbia, S.C., explained it:

Johnson said all qualified, would-be foster parents will continue to have other options in South Carolina. As a condition of the waiver, federally funded faith-based groups will continue to be required to refer any potential foster-care families that they do not accept to other placement agencies or to Social Services.

And this is how the Greenville News, the newspaper in the ministry’s home city, put it:

Miracle Hill, the largest provider of foster families in South Carolina for foster children who do not have significant special needs, does not allow gay couples or families that don’t agree with its statement of faith to serve as foster parents through its program. However, it does direct those of different beliefs to other foster care programs.

This is a crucial point, in my opinion, that is often left out of news stories on this issue.

2. It’s unclear — according to experts — whether such an exemption will result in more or fewer children receiving foster or adoptive parents, but agencies in other states have closed when the organizations refused to compromise their beliefs.

The Deseret News story noted:

Already, religious agencies have closed in Massachusetts, Pennsylvania and Illinois because they wouldn't serve LGBT couples and couldn't stay open without government funds.

Faith-based adoption and foster care agencies emerged as a key battleground last year in the ongoing clash between the rights of the LGBT community and religious objectors to same-sex marriage. Four state legislatures considered new protections for religious agencies, and measures passed in Kansas and Oklahoma, according to a Deseret News analysis.

The rights of faith-based adoption and foster care agencies were also debated in courtrooms across the country, including in Michigan, where the ACLU has challenged a state policy allowing religious organizations that won't serve LGBT couples to receive government funds, the Deseret News reported. In each case, judges were asked to consider whether religious agencies that won't serve all applicants should still be eligible for government funds.

3. It’s not precise to say that Miracle Hill only accepts Christian parents because the ministry also rejects certain Christian believers whose doctrines it rejects.

This fascinating detail was included in Yonat Shimron’s Religion News Service report:

The exemption will allow Miracle Hill Ministries, a Greenville-based Christian ministry, to continue to accept only Protestant, churchgoing parents to its federally funded foster care program, which recruits, supports and helps train parents to be licensed by the state to foster children.

Later in the story, RNS elaborated:

While the ministry serves children of all faiths, it will only recruit, support and help train Protestant parents because it considers them to have a “spiritual influence” on children.

“We are an arm of the Protestant church,” said Reid Lehman, Miracle Hill’s CEO. “We exist to be a mission arm of Protestant churches and to proclaim Protestant faith. It’s not a judgment or an exclusion. It’s simply that we’re going to be consistent with that.”

So no Catholic parents served?

Exactly:

South Carolina’ Catholic minority, comprising about 5 percent of the state’s population, has grudgingly accepted that Miracle Hill will not hire Catholics or allow them to enroll in its foster care program.

“Catholics in the Upstate of South Carolina learn very quickly that significant numbers of our neighbors who are deeply committed disciples of Jesus, do not think that we are,” said the Rev. Jay Scott Newman, pastor of St. Mary’s Catholic Church in Greenville. “That’s just a fact of life. They are part of a Reformation tradition that still regards Catholicism as a false religion.”

An exemption to the federal rule, Newman added, might make sense, even as he would like to convince Miracle Hill it is mistaken about Catholics.

“Within their worldview, all this makes perfect sense,” he said. “We do our best to live in a peaceful and productive and neighborly way with them.”

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It’s definitely an interesting — and potentially significant — development in the culture wars.

Even Chelsea Clinton thinks so.

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