Miracle Hill still in the dock
Religious Liberty | Recent and upcoming Supreme Court cases may affect the outcome
by Steve West
Posted 8/13/20, 04:32 pm
The threat to a Christian foster care agency in South Carolina lives on. A federal judge late on Monday ruled that a Catholic woman had standing to sue the federal and state government for allowing Miracle Hill Ministries to work only with people who share its Protestant beliefs.
Aimee Maddonna initially sued the state of South Carolina and the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services after Miracle Hill declined to allow her to volunteer or potentially foster children in 2014, citing a policy of only working with Protestant families. While the lawsuit was pending, the agency said it would begin accepting Catholic and Orthodox Christian applicants, but Maddonna still said she would not sign the ministry’s statement of faith—a requirement for prospective foster parents. At the request of South Carolina Republican Gov. Henry McMaster, HHS in January 2019 granted an exemption to its nondiscrimination rules, allowing Miracle Hill to continue operating according to the policy. Then Maddonna sued again.
U.S. District Judge Timothy M. Cain said Maddonna made a plausible case that state and federal governments had “conveyed a message endorsing religion by allowing state-licensed, government-funded [child-placement agencies] to reject prospective foster parents based on religious criteria.”
But the ruling failed to reckon with the implications of recent Supreme Court decisions in First Amendment cases.
In 2019’s American Legion v. American Humanist Association, the court upheld the constitutionality of the historic Bladensburg cross monument in Maryland. The ruling undermined a test from Lemon v. Kurtzman that courts have long used to decide cases about the establishment clause found in the First Amendment. But Cain relied heavily on the Lemon test anyway in Miracle Hill’s case.
In July’s Espinoza v. Montana State Department of Revenue, the Supreme Court said the state can’t discriminate against religious institutions when providing tuition tax vouchers to private school students. But Cain allowed Maddonna’s case to proceed even though it would sanction similar governmental discrimination against religious foster care agencies.
Fulton v. City of Philadelphia, a case set for argument before the Supreme Court this fall, may prove the final word on the subject. The justices will decide whether the city can bar Catholic Social Services from placing foster children because it only works with applicants who hold a Biblical view of marriage.
“We are optimistic that the court will recognize the importance of protecting Miracle Hill’s foster care ministry,” said Becket counsel Lori Windham, who is working on Fulton. “Shutting down Miracle Hill because of its religious beliefs doesn’t help other agencies recruit more foster families—it instead keeps kids out of loving homes.”
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Steve is a legal correspondent for WORLD. He is a graduate of World Journalism Institute, Wake Forest University School of Law, and N.C. State University. He worked for 34 years as a federal prosecutor and is now an attorney in private practice. Steve resides with his wife in Raleigh, N.C. Follow him on Twitter @slntplanet.