If you are a Catholic who would like to provide foster care for a child in need, Miracle Hill Ministries stands ready to help.

South Carolina's largest foster care provider came under fire earlier this year for a restrictive policy which denied placements to Catholics seeking to become foster parents. Miracle Hill Ministries, an evangelical Protestant foster care provider based in Greenville, South Carolina, is one of 11 church-affiliated or Christian-based child placement agencies in South Carolina; but according to DSS spokeswoman Karen Wingo, Miracle Hill is the only one that has religious requirements for foster parents.

The issue came to public attention when Aimee Maddonna, a South Carolina mother of three, applied to become a foster parent through Miracle Hill Ministries. Maddonna, who had grown up in a home with many foster children, first seemed to Miracle Hill to be “a great fit to help foster care children.” In her interview, all seemed to be going well until she was asked the name of her church. “Our Lady of the Rosary,” she replied, referring to the Greenville church pastored by Fr. Dwight Longenecker, and she was turned away. Miracle Hill explained that they work only with evangelical Protestants, and not with Catholics, Jews or people of any other faith.

In February, Maddonna, with the assistance of Americans United for Separation of Church and State, filed a lawsuit alleging discrimination because of her Catholic faith. The policy in effect at that time at Miracle Hill Ministries described a viable foster parent as an active member of a Protestant congregation, “a born-again believer in the Lord Jesus Christ as expressed by a personal testimony and Christian conduct.” Further, Miracle Hill Ministries' frequently-asked-questions section explained that while Jews or Catholics “wouldn't be a good fit for Christian leadership roles at Miracle Hill, such as in our foster-care and mentoring programs,” the organization could help to connect members of other faiths to groups where their service would be welcomed.

 

Discrimination Or Religious Liberty?

Why would Miracle Hill turn away good Catholic foster parents, when the need in the community is great? There are an estimated 1,000 children in the state of South Carolina who are in need of placement in an approved foster home.

Some took the position that the policy was discriminatory because Miracle Hill rejected prospective foster parents who were Catholic, Jewish or members of other faiths. The Anti-Defamation League, a civil rights organization which fights perceived anti-Semitism and other forms of “hate,” asked the federal government to stop Miracle Hill's selection of foster parents based upon their religious beliefs. The ADL insisted that the federal taxpayers should not be asked to pay for what was, in their estimation, a discriminatory practice.

Others saw the issue not as discrimination, but instead cited the First Amendment’s protections of religious liberty – insisting that a Christian service agency should be able to establish its own parameters for selecting foster-care parents. And the Coalition for Jewish Values, a conservative national group representing more than 1,000 Jewish rabbis, sided with Miracle Hill and endorsed their practice of choosing Christians as foster parents. The CJV called opposition by the liberal Anti-Defamation League “a misinterpretation of the First Amendment that runs against Jewish beliefs and values.”

The Catholic Diocese of Charleston issued the following statement in support of Miracle Hill:

“The Catholic Diocese of Charleston supports Miracle Hill Ministries’ ability to assist in placing vulnerable children in safe and stable homes in our state. This organization should not be forced to discontinue these life-affirming services because they desire to serve children consistent with their Protestant faith.

The freedom of religion recognized and guaranteed by our Constitution is not merely the freedom to worship. Freedom of religion includes every sphere of teaching, service, and public witness required to live according to one’s faith, and no religious group should be forced to alter their beliefs in order to exercise their legitimate freedoms in the public square.

The Catholic Church has theological disagreements with Miracle Hill Ministries; however, we applaud their remarkable service to the poor and hope that they will continue and succeed in that service in our community.”

South Carolina Governor Henry McMaster defended Miracle Hill's Christian requirement, and worked with federal officials to secure a waiver from requirements that would restrict the agency's faith-based approach or deny government funding for their placements. In a letter to Miracle Hill Ministries, Governor McMaster said,

“The licensing and participation of faith-based entities in the state foster care system is a constitutionally protected practice. It is important that religious organizations not be required to sacrifice the tenets of their faith in order to serve the children of South Carolina.”

In January 2019, the Administration for Children and Families (ACF) at the U.S. Department of Human Services (HHS) granted Governor McMaster's request to protect the religious liberty of foster care providers in the state of South Carolina. Lynn Johnson, assistant secretary for ACF, said in a statement:

“We have approved South Carolina's request to protect religious freedom and preserve high-quality foster care placement options for children. 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, especially now that child welfare systems are stretched thin as a result of the opioid epidemic.”

Johnson added that by granting this request to South Carolina, HHS is putting foster care capacity needs ahead of burdensome regulations imposed by the Obama administration which are in conflict with the law.

 

Policy Change Strengthens Christian Identity by Opening Foster Program to Catholics

But in fact, while Miracle Hill's longstanding policy did exclude Catholics from becoming foster parents, that policy had been under review by the organization's board – and Aimee Maddonna could well have held off on her lawsuit, awaiting the changes which were about to come. On July 5, Miracle Hill announced that

“In order to strengthen its mission of providing comprehensive care in the name of Jesus Christ and for the sake of unity among followers of Jesus Christ, the Board and CEO of Miracle Hill Ministries have clarified the nonprofit's identity as an evangelical, Christian, Gospel-infused mercy ministry, and have opened the door for Catholics who affirm Miracle Hill's doctrinal statement in belief and practice to serve as foster parents and employees.”

Reid Lehman, Miracle Hill's president and CEO, talked with the Register about the decision to work with Catholics as well as evangelical Protestants to provide foster care for needy children. Miracle Hill Ministries' Board, he explained, since last fall had been discussing opening its doors to Catholic applicants.

Lehman expressed his concern that Aimee Maddonna's lawsuit gave the impression that Miracle Hill was in a dispute with other followers of Jesus Christ. “We are grieved,” Lehman said,

“...that the recent religious freedom struggle surrounding our foster care program has been mischaracterized in the media as a dispute between followers of Christ instead of the right to exist as a Christian organization providing invaluable services to our community. Our calling as an organization is not primarily to evaluate and emphasize differences between various branches of Christianity or between denominations within Protestantism. Rather, Miracle Hill's spiritual identity is first and foremost that of brothers and sisters in Christ working together to minister to the needy in Christ's name.”

The July 5 announcement clarifies the requirement that applicants must sign a doctrinal statement which indicates their belief in the following foundational principles:

  • The Bible is the only inspired, infallible, inerrant and authoritative Word of God;
  • There is one God, creator of heaven and earth, eternally existent in three distinct persons: the Father, the Son and Holy Spirit;
  • The deity and humanity of Jesus Christ: that he was born of a virgin; that we are redeemed by His atoning death through His shed blood; that He bodily resurrected and ascended into heaven and that He will come again in power and great glory to judge the living and the dead;
  • the value and dignity of all people created in God's image, but alienated from God and each other because of our sin and guilt and justly subject to God's wrath;
  • that regeneration by the Holy Spirit by grace through faith is essential for the salvation of lost and sinful people;
  • the forgiveness of sins, the resurrection of the body, and life everlasting solely through repentance and faith in Jesus Christ;
  • that the Holy Spirit unites all believers in the Lord Jesus Christ and that together they form one body – the church;
  • God ordained the family as the foundational institution of human society. It is composed of persons related to one another by marriage, blood or adoption, and that God's design for marriage is the legal joining of one man and one woman in a life-long covenant relationship; and
  • God creates each person as either male or female, and these two distinct, complementary sexes, together reflect the image and nature of God.

Because the doctrinal statement requires a belief in a Trinitarian God, Miracle Hill Ministries still will not welcome foster parents who are adherents of Judaism, Islam or other religions (or no religion). They will, however, assist prospective foster parents who don't qualify according to Miracle Hill's requirements, by referring them to the state agency or other secular or faith-based agencies which can assist with placements.

The Catholic Diocese of Charleston has applauded Miracle Hill's decision to accept Catholic foster parents. Sandy Furnell, Miracle Hill communications director, said, “When we've had conversations with local leaders in different churches, the Catholic Church and different denominations, they too have been very pleased to hear about this change.” Maria Aselage, spokeswoman for the Diocese of Charleston, said,

“The Diocese of Charleston welcomes this change to policy as we continue to unite as Christians in service of the poorest and most vulnerable among us. The doctrinal statement of Miracle Hill is consistent with the teachings of the Catholic Church and was affirmed by a diocesan theologian several months ago.”

Miracle Hill's new policy will not make everyone happy. Non-Christians, including Jews and Muslims, as well as atheists, will not be able to serve, although Reid Lehman confirmed that Messianic Jews could become foster parents because of their acceptance of the Holy Trinity. Same-sex couples would not qualify, because Miracle Hill stands by its understanding of marriage as between one male and one female.

Aimee Maddonna, whose lawsuit made headlines early in 2019, has indicated that she still feels unable to sign the doctrinal statement. Her opposition, she explains, is not only to the proscription against Catholic foster parents, but she also believes that Miracle Hill should assist with placements in same-sex households. That is a policy change which Miracle Hill will not enact.