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Protesters gather outside the White House in July 2017
Various organizations are suing the state and federal governments on behalf of a married gay couple who was denied services at a Greenville foster care agency earlier this year.
S.C. Equality, Lambda Legal, the American Civil Liberties Union, and the ACLU's South Carolina chapter filed suit
Tuesday in U.S. District Court in downtown Charleston.
The complaint centers on Brandy Welch and Eden Rogers, a Unitarian Universalist couple who has been married for three years and has two daughters aged 7 and 10.
In April, they decided to open their home to foster children and submit an online application with Greenville-based Miracle Hill Ministries, according to S.C. Equality.
Welch and Rogers
"As a mother and an educator, I want to make sure children in foster care have a safe, supportive, and loving home when they need one," Rogers said in a statement.
On May 1, Welch and Rogers received an email from a Miracle Hill staffer saying that the organization "feel[s] a religious obligation to partner with foster parents who share our beliefs and who are active in a Christian church."
The staffer added that Miracle Hill "would not be a good fit to assist you in your quest to secure state licensure to become foster parent" and sent the couple a list of nine other agencies that could help them, according to the lawsuit.
Miracle Hill Ministries was founded in 1937, according to their website
. The nonprofit describes its mission as making sure that "homeless children and adults receive food and shelter with compassion, hear the Good News of Jesus Christ, and move toward healthy relationships and stability."
Miracle Hill is one of the largest state-contracted child placing agencies in South Carolina. The agency served 400 children in the 2017-2018 fiscal year, according to spokeswoman Sandra Furnell. The organization recruits parents and assists them once a child is placed in their home by the S.C. Department of Social Services.
"We are saddened that Ms. Rogers and Ms. Welch are unwilling to foster children if they cannot do so with Miracle Hill," said Miracle Hill President and CEO Reid Lehman in a statement Thursday. "We would be honored to work with them if they shared our religious convictions in belief and practice, and we've encouraged them to volunteer in other ways with our ministry if they would like to do so."
The group's doctrinal statement
affirms their belief that "there is one God, creator of heaven and earth, eternally existent in three distinctive persons: the Father, Son and Holy Spirit," which conflicts with Welch and Rogers' Unitarian Universalist beliefs. The agency also believes that "God’s design for marriage is the legal joining of one man and one woman in a life-long covenant relationship."
"There is simply no place for discrimination in our state’s foster care system," said S.C. Equality Executive Director Jeff Ayers in a statement. "South Carolina’s vulnerable children need loving families ready to give them loving homes."
In 2018, the DSS told Miracle Hill that it could not discriminate against non-Christian families, but Gov. Henry McMaster sought a waiver from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services to allow Miracle Hill to continue using its religious criteria.
In January, the federal government granted that waiver.
"We have approved South Carolina’s request to protect religious freedom and preserve high-quality foster care placement options for children," said Lynn Johnson, assistant secretary of the Administration for Children and Families at HHS, in a statement granting the governor's request. "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."
Tuesday's lawsuit argues that the state and federal government's actions violate the Establishment, Equal Protection, and Due Process clauses of the U.S. Constitution.
It seeks to bar the state from funding or contracting with any foster care agency that discriminates on the basis of sexual orientation, as well as the federal government from granting any similar waivers that allow such a relationship.
Last month, a federal appeals court in Philadelphia ruled
that the city did not violate the right to religious liberty after it terminated a foster agency's contract for turning away LGBTQ parents, according to the Philadelphia Inquirer