Facebook Twitter

Why these Republicans say faith-based foster care agencies need our support

Sens. Mitt Romney and Mike Lee are among the Republicans calling on the Biden administration to protect faith-based providers

SHARE Why these Republicans say faith-based foster care agencies need our support

Alex Cochran, Deseret News

Congressional Republicans are speaking out in support of faith-based foster care and adoption agencies after the Biden administration moved to make it harder for such organizations to access exemptions to federal nondiscrimination rules.

In a public letter signed by more than 100 senators and representatives, including Utah Sens. Mitt Romney and Mike Lee, Republican leaders call on the Department of Health and Human Services to ensure that religiously affiliated agencies don’t lose access to government funding as a result of their religious beliefs.

“HHS should be welcoming child welfare providers, not excluding them. Children are too important to be pawns in political games,” they say.

The letter responds to the department’s November announcement that it was rescinding “overly broad” waivers granted by the Trump administration to faith-based agencies that violate nondiscrimination law by, for example, refusing to train or place children with LGBTQ couples. HHS left open the possibility of granting future religious exemption requests, but said that such requests would be evaluated on a case-by-case basis.

“Our action ensures we are best prepared to protect every American’s right to be free of discrimination. With the large number of discrimination claims before us, we owe it to all who come forward to act, whether to review, investigate or take appropriate measures to protect their rights. At HHS, we treat any violation of civil rights or religious freedoms seriously,” said Xavier Becerra, the secretary of Health and Human Services, in November.

In their letter, Republican lawmakers argue that the policy move will harm the hundreds of thousands of kids who are currently in foster care. Some families only feel comfortable signing up to foster or adopt if they have the opportunity to partner with a religiously affiliated agency, the letter says.

“The freedom to work with faith-based agencies is vital to many foster families,” lawmakers wrote. “Your precipitous actions create no winners, only losers in the form of children, parents, religious freedom and the rule of law.”

Supporters of the department’s decision cast the move in a different light. Rather than focus on the needs of faith-based organizations, they emphasize the potential danger of allowing agencies to turn away otherwise qualified foster parents for being gay or because of their faith.

“The Department of Health and Human Services should never allow taxpayer-funded foster care agencies to apply a religious litmus test to discriminate against Catholic, Jewish, LGBTQ and other families who want to help children who are in foster care,” said Rachel Laser, president and CEO of Americans United for Separation of Church and State, in a November statement praising the department’s waiver decision.

The ongoing clash over the Biden administration’s approach to religious exemptions is just one part of a larger battle over how to balance religious freedom with nondiscrimination protections in the foster care context. For years, legal experts, legislators and child welfare advocates have been locked in conflict over how best to balance the rights of religiously affiliated agencies with the rights of the children and parents they serve.

Last year, a lawsuit tied to this broader battle made it all the way to the Supreme Court. The justices unanimously ruled in favor of a Catholic agency in Philadelphia, deciding that city officials could not refuse to accommodate faith-based agencies since they were willing to accept other types of accommodation requests.

The agency “seeks only an accommodation that will allow it to continue serving the children of Philadelphia in a manner consistent with its religious beliefs; it does not seek to impose those beliefs on anyone else,” wrote Chief Justice John Roberts in the majority opinion.

Republican lawmakers cite this ruling in their letter to HHS, arguing that the Supreme Court clearly believes faith-based providers deserve religious freedom protections.

However, some legal experts believe this summary of the decision is overly simplistic. They claim that the court has not yet clearly articulated how to balance religious rights with nondiscrimination rules.