After months of threats and scrutiny, Miracle Hill Ministries in Greenville, S.C., finally received a reprieve last month when the Trump administration ruled that child-placing agencies in South Carolina could act in accordance with their religious beliefs without facing punishment. But the foster care agency’s battle for religious freedom isn’t over. A new lawsuit aims to reverse the administration’s decision and take away Miracle Hill’s federal funding.
Aimee Maddonna claims Miracle Hill discriminated against her by barring her from its foster care program because she is Catholic. As a Protestant organization, Miracle Hill only allows other Protestants serve in roles of spiritual leadership such as mentoring or fostering children. The lawsuit, filed Feb. 15, states the Maddonna family objects to its tax dollars funding an organization that discriminates against other religions. It also claims that, by permitting Miracle Hill to work only with people who share the organization’s faith background, the state is harming children and denying them homes.
But Reid Lehman, Miracle Hill’s president and CEO, told me that Maddonna did not approach the agency about fostering. In 2014, Maddonna inquired about participating in a mentorship program with the possibility of fostering later, he said. Miracle Hill Communications Director Sandra Furnell said the organization told Maddonna that not only does it only work with Protestants, but it also strongly discourages any kind of mentor-to-adopt scenario.
“If she actually wants to become a foster parent, we would do everything in our power to help her become a foster parent with someone,” Lehman said. “For either situation, there are many other opportunities to mentor and many other opportunities to foster.”
For its mentoring program, Miracle Hill has formed a partnership with another organization called Fostering Great Ideas. Furnell said Maddonna could essentially participate in the same program, just not through Miracle Hill.
After informing her of the policy, the organization did not hear from Maddonna again until this year, when she contacted the ministry asking if it was true that Miracle Hill would not allow her to foster because she was Catholic. Lehman said he was still working on a response to her when the lawsuit was filed just days later. Three of the four attorneys listed on the suit work with Americans United for the Separation of Church and State. That organization declined to answer questions about what congregation Maddonna is a part of, how regularly she attends Mass, or if she did other church-based volunteer work.
The Diocese of Charleston, which oversees Catholic churches throughout South Carolina, almost immediately released a statement in support of Miracle Hill, a move Lehman said he greatly appreciated. “[Miracle Hill] should not be forced to discontinue these life-affirming services because they desire to serve children consistent with their Protestant faith,” the diocese said.
The waiver that brought relief to Miracle Hill also applies to Catholic, Jewish, or any other faith-based organization that works with South Carolina’s Department of Social Services (DSS) to place children in the state. Catholic foster and adoption agencies across the country have faced lawsuits and even closed down for adhering to their beliefs. Lehman said Miracle Hill had supported Catholic organizations in similar situations as much as possible.
While the lawsuit and many of Miracle Hill’s detractors frame the question in terms of government funding, Lehman said, for the agency, the question isn’t about funding at all. Miracle Hill’s foster program received no government funding for the first 27 of its 30 years of operation. It only began receiving some reimbursement when South Carolina was desperate for more foster families, he said, and Miracle Hill agreed it could probably take on a few more cases if it had more money. Even now, the state only reimburses the agency when DSS chooses to place a child with one of its families. Miracle Hill covers all the costs for recruiting and training new foster parents. Lehman said if the federal money went away, Miracle Hill would still continue, but most of its opponents want it closed down.
“We’re fighting for the right to exist,” he said. “We think, if religious freedom means anything at all, there should be no question about the right to exist.”