This week, the Trump administration granted government-contracted child welfare agencies in South Carolina permission to discriminate against Jewish, Muslim, Catholic, Unitarian, atheist, agnostic, and other prospective foster and adoptive parents who don’t share the same religious beliefs as agency leaders.

This decision is in response to a request made last year by South Carolina governor Henry McMaster to enable a specific faith-based agency, Miracle Hill Ministries, to continue receiving federal child welfare funding while explicitly rejecting parents and volunteers who are not aligned with their religious beliefs, including Jews and Catholics.

While the Department of Health and Human Services’ (HHS) waiver only applies to South Carolina, the decision sets a dangerous precedent nationwide that puts an agency’s religious practices above the needs and well-being of children and reflects a growing trend toward discriminatory child welfare laws across the country, where at least eight states already have laws allowing faith-based child welfare agencies to discriminate against prospective families.

NACAC values the important role that faith-based organizations play in child welfare programs, and many of them do this work without discriminating. For those that do, however, we will continue to rely on our more than 40 years of experience in foster care and adoption to call for what is right. We must hold firm to the belief that the best interests of children in care must always come first in all child welfare policy. In South Carolina, one of the states hardest hit by the opioid crisis, more than 4,000 children are in foster care. We are concerned that this decision will exacerbate the shortage of families available to children who cannot return home or be placed with relatives, thus increasing the number of children in group homes or separated from siblings. Laws and policies that allow discrimination against qualified, loving parents unnecessarily limit the pool of safe and loving families who can help children and teens grow and thrive.

The government should be focused on children’s best interests rather than an agency’s rights. Denying a child’s urgent need for loving, stable families in favor of agency leaders’ religious beliefs violates the government’s legal, moral, and ethical obligation to improve the lives of children in its care by ensuring that they are cared for in families of diverse backgrounds and faiths that reflect the varied fabric of our society.

For these reasons, NACAC calls upon HHS to reverse its decision and put children first. We also ask Congress to pass legislation that prohibits discrimination such as that allowed under this waiver.