For nearly a decade, the U.S. bishops have campaigned to uphold religious liberty despite their agenda sometimes harming the cause of equality for women and for LGBTQ people. But a social service agency’s recent discrimination against a Catholic client raises the possibility that the bishops’ advocacy may be backfiring.
According to The Daily Beast, “the state-funded, evangelical-run Miracle Hill Ministries [in Greenville, South Carolina] only places children with ‘born again’ Christian parents.” Thus Aimee Maddonna’s application to be a foster parent was summarily dismissed because she is Catholic despite the report describing her as “the kind of foster parent that child welfare agencies dream of.”
In many contexts, such discrimination on the basis of religion remains illegal. But years of right-wing efforts, often led by Catholic bishops, to expand religious exemptions are paying off under the current federal administration. The Daily Beast explained:
“In 2018, South Carolina’s Republican governor, Henry McMaster, issued an executive order specifically allowing this discrimination and asked for a federal waiver to allow Miracle Hill to receive federal taxpayer dollars disbursed by the state and turn away not just LGBT people, unmarried people, and anyone else they deemed religiously unfit, but non-evangelical Christians and Jews too. (At least two Jewish couples have also been denied by Miracle Hill.)
“In January 2019, the Trump administration’s Department of Health and Human Services granted that waiver.”
Waiver in hand, Miracle Hill Ministries is now free to collect taxpayer funding while it discriminates at will against any person or persons it deems in conflict with the agency’s evangelical Christian beliefs.
Religious exemptions like South Carolina’s are spreading to “crisis levels” according to the American Civil Liberties Union’s Leslie Cooper. Ten states presently allow near-limitless discrimination by state-funded, religious social service agencies providing adoptions and foster care. An appeal by the state of Texas to the federal Department of Health and Human Services is asking for such an exemption to be implemented nationwide for child welfare agencies. Legal challenges now working their way through the judicial system may also lead to a nationwide exemption with a Supreme Court now leaning to the right.
Catholics in the United States faced discrimination for most of the nation’s history, particularly in the late 19th and early 20th century as European immigration from largely Catholic nations spiked. Despite the right wing’s unconvincing cries about anti-Catholic discrimination today, that history is true. Are the nation’s bishops ironically now laying the foundation for a regression to such discrimination against the faithful?
The answer seems to be yes. Church leaders’ efforts on adoption agencies alone are leading to widely expanded exemptions. Catholic agencies in places like New York, Illinois, Massachusetts, and the District of Columbia canceled adoption and foster care services rather than service LGBTQ people. Such agencies in Michigan and Pennsylvania have sued for the right to exclude candidates based on the agency’s religious identity; indeed, The Daily Beast noted that Catholic Social Services in Philadelphia’s lawsuit against the city could, if it reaches the Supreme Court, be the victory conservatives need to nationalize widespread religious exemptions. Church leaders and politicians have paired together in Oklahoma, Kansas, South Dakota, and Texas to largely successfully implement anti-LGBTQ religious exemption laws for child welfare agencies.
In other words, to quote The Daily Beast’s Jay Michaelson, “In their zeal to stop gay people from adopting kids in need, conservatives have empowered state-funded agencies to turn away anyone they deem unsuitable, with no reference to child welfare whatsoever.”
But according to Michaelson, this situation need never occur. Religious organizations can do as they please as long as they refuse taxpayer funding. If they have diminished capacity or even close, Michaelson looks to places like Massachusetts and Illinois to prove that non-exclusionary agencies can certainly fill the gap. The path forward, however, is not allowing wider exclusion. It is putting children first.
Michaelson noted there are 123,000 children presently waiting to be adopted or fostered in the U.S. and yet too few parents to provide loving homes for these kids. Qualified parents should not be excluded “based on criteria not relevant to the child’s well-being.” All that should matter is whether the potential adoptive or foster parent can provide a loving home.
Perhaps this instance of anti-Catholic discrimination and others that may arise will cause the bishops to shift course away from their campaign to preserve and expand the right to discriminate against LGBTQ people. Maybe they will come to understand that religious liberty is essential, but has necessary limits in a pluralistic, democratic society. That would certainly be welcome progress. But even if it happens, how sad that the well-being of vulnerable children alone was not enough for the U.S. bishops to act differently. Church leaders need to pause and reflect in this moment of growing extremism on how many more kids they will make suffer just to continue an exclusionary crusade against LGBTQ people’s human rights.
—Robert Shine, New Ways Ministry, April 30, 2019