Sumter group home director responds to governor siding with faith-based foster care approach

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COLUMBIA - Gov. Henry McMaster is siding with an Upstate foster-care provider embroiled in a battle with government officials about a requirement it has that foster families be Christian.

In a letter sent Wednesday night to Miracle Hill Ministries of Greenville, McMaster said he is working with federal officials to obtain a waiver from requirements that would restrict the organization's faith-based approach or halt its work in helping provide foster care.

"The licensing and participation of faith-based entities in the state foster care system is a constitutionally protected practice," McMaster wrote. "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 an op-ed delivered to The Greenville News, Betsy Tanner, an Upstate foster parent and adoption attorney, wrote that Miracle Hill has become one of the largest private foster-care providers in the state, supporting families in eight counties.

Currently, she wrote, 161 children receive care in those foster families. Last year 31 of those children achieved permanency when adopted by the families caring for them.

"For 29 years, Miracle Hill has gladly served all foster children of any race, national origin, religious beliefs, sex, disability or political belief," Tanner wrote. "And for 29 years, Miracle Hill has recruited foster families who share its nondenominational Christian religious beliefs. Miracle Hill has always been clear regarding its religious identity and conviction that all staff - paid and unpaid - are followers of Jesus Christ."

But in 2017, Tanner wrote, the state Department of Social Services began interpreting federal and state regulations to say that Miracle Hill does not have the freedom to require foster families share its religious beliefs.

"Based on this new interpretation, SCDSS has given Miracle Hill 30 days to either abandon its religious convictions or shut down its ministry as a foster child placing agency," Tanner wrote.

The provider is licensed by DSS, which is part of the governor's cabinet, under regulations of the federal government.

The governor wrote in his letter that his staff recently met with Miracle Hill officials and heard their concerns over threats to their work because of their faith-based approach.

McMaster said in his letter that he is working with the federal government to obtain a waiver for requirements "that adversely affect religious entities."

According to Miracle Hill's website, the Upstate nonprofit was founded in 1937 and is "dedicated to providing extensive services to individuals and families in the form of food, shelter, clothing, counseling, personal development, addiction recovery support, and residential and foster care for children."

Since 1988 Miracle Hill has made it its mission to "find Christian foster parents," the organization states on its website. "Being a resource foster parent is a tremendous blessing and directly answers God's call in James 1:27."

McMaster wrote that he is "committed to protecting religious freedom and to ensuring that Miracle Hill continues serving our state's foster children."