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Group: Foster waiver sought by SC governor unconstitutional

South Carolina Gov. Henry McMaster speaks during a roundtable discussion on economic development and the cyber industry at SRP Park in North Augusta, S.C., Wednesday, Oct. 10, 2018. (Michael Holahan/The Augusta Chronicle via AP)

COLUMBIA, S.C. (AP) — A waiver that seeks to allow federally funded foster care agencies to continue to deny services to same-sex or non-Christian couples is unconstitutional, a civil rights group argued Tuesday.

In a letter to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, the Anti-Defamation League urged the agency to reject the waiver request by South Carolina Gov. Henry McMaster, which it said constitutes “taxpayer-funded discrimination” in violation of the First Amendment.

The group also launched an online petition calling on the Trump administration to ensure that federal funds are not being used to promote religious discrimination in foster care.

Earlier this year, McMaster asked federal officials to exempt South Carolina from an Obama-era regulation preventing publicly licensed and funded foster care agencies from servicing specific religions. The waiver request centers around Miracle Hill Ministries, a Greenville foster care agency that denies services to same-sex couples and non-Christian families.

At the time, McMaster also issued an executive order bolstering religious freedom for individuals and organizations, such as Miracle Hill, which requires participating families to be Christian. The order directed state Department of Social Services officials not to deny licensure to such entities “solely on account of their religious identity or sincerely held religious beliefs.”

Over the summer, that policy became part of state law when a similar clause was inserted into the state budget ultimately approved by state lawmakers.

McMaster had earlier written to Miracle Hill executive director Reid Lehman, assuring him of his support for religious freedom for foster care providers. In August, McMaster awarded Lehman the Order of the Palmetto, saying of the organization, “They see a great benefit in those foster families being Christian, and there’s nothing in the world wrong with that,” according to The Post and Courier of Charleston.

“The governor believes the concerns raised in this letter are both unfounded and off-base. The issue is the constitutionally protected religious beliefs of all South Carolinians, regardless of their faith,” McMaster spokesman Brian Symmes said in a statement provided to AP. “The governor would fight just as hard on behalf of Miracle Hill if they were a Jewish organization, a Muslim organization, or an organization of any other faith. We need more organizations engaged in finding foster care home for children, not less.”

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Meg Kinnard can be reached on Twitter at http://twitter.com/MegKinnardAP.

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