Catholic Bishops’ Religious Liberty Fight Enables Anti-Jewish Discrimination (Updated)

UPDATE, January 25, 10:10 a.m.: The Trump administration on Wednesday approved a waiver allowing a South Carolina Christian organization “to participate in the federally funded foster-care program, even though the group will work only with Christian families,” according to the Washington Post.

As Religion Dispatches has previously reported, South Carolina Gov. Henry McMaster is seeking a waiver from the Trump administration to allow Miracle Hill Ministries, a social welfare agency that is a major player in the state’s foster care program, to discriminate against non-Christians such as Jews and Muslims. The Greenville News reports that a Jewish woman was turned away as a potential foster mentor for Miracle Hill last spring because “she didn’t share the organization’s Christian beliefs.”

At a time of renewed attention to violence targeting religious minorities, it’s worth noting that the roots of South Carolina’s repugnant policy can be found squarely in the efforts of the U.S. Catholic bishops to push for broad-based “religious liberty” protections for faith-based social service agencies and to ask how the policies of the Catholic Church might unwittingly contribute to the mainstreaming of certain kinds of religious animus.

To be sure, the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops has long decried overt anti-Semitism, well aware of the historic linkages between animus to Catholics and hostility to Jews. At the same time, however, the language and logic the bishops have utilized in their religious freedom arguments against requirements that state-funded adoption groups treat all applicants equally, including LGBTQ couples and individuals, have laid the groundwork for similar claims that Christian social service agencies shouldn’t have to work with Jews or Muslims.

Echoing the arguments of Catholic social service agencies like Catholic Charities, that they should be allowed to refuse to place children for adoption with gay couples because it violates the church’s sanctions against homosexuality, Miracle Hill is arguing that it should be allowed to discriminate against Jews and other non-Christians who don’t adhere to its beliefs and still receive state and federal funding for its foster program. “The issue, as we see it, is that we’ve been threatened that if we don’t open our Miracle Hill foster care families to non-Christians, we can no longer recruit foster families and no longer support them. We think that’s a religious liberty issue,” Miracle Hill President Reid Lehman told the Greenville News.

The USCCB has framed efforts to require equality in adoption and foster services as discrimination against Catholics:

Among many current challenges, several state governments have sought to trample on the conscience rights of Catholic charitable service providers. Religious liberty is more than freedom of worship; it includes our ability to make our contribution to the common good of all Americans without having to compromise our faith. Without religious liberty properly understood, all Americans suffer, including the neediest children seeking adoptive and foster families, as well as birth parents who wish to turn to faith-based providers in order to place their children with adoptive parents.

The Catholic bishops also back the Orwellian-titled federal Child Welfare Provider Inclusion Act, which would allow adoption agencies to discriminate against same-sex couples. In a letter to Rep. Mike Kelly (R-PA), the measure’s sponsor, three of the nation’s most prominent bishops, including Baltimore Archbishop William Lori, who heads the bishops’ Committee for Religious Liberty, argued that the bill is necessary because “child welfare providers who believe that children deserve to be placed with a married mother and father… [are] being subjected to discrimination because of their sincerely held religious beliefs and moral convictions.” They also held that parents placing children for adoption should be free to chose an agency that “shares the parents’ religious beliefs and moral convictions.”

To date, a number of Catholic Charity adoption agencies, including those in Illinois, Boston, San Francisco, and most recently Buffalo, New York, have shut down rather than offer adoption services to same-sex couples. They’ve then turned around and accused civil authorities of putting them out of business because of anti-Catholic animus.

Catholic Social Services (CSS) of Philadelphia is suing the city of Philadelphia for pulling referrals to its foster care agency because it refused to license same-sex couples to be foster care providers. In a petition to the U.S. Supreme Court for an injunction against Philadelphia’s halting of referrals, which was denied, CSS claimed that Philadelphia was demanding that “religious groups parrot its views as a pre-condition to serving foster children,” and was retaliating against CSS “by shutting down Catholic’s foster care program and punishing existing foster families.”

It’s not hard to extend the logic of the bishops and their social service agencies to the assertion that Christian social services agencies shouldn’t be “discriminated” against for refusing to work with those who don’t share their religious beliefs. Evangelical organizations like Miracle Hill, however, appear to be using the religious liberty argument developed by the Catholic bishops as cover for explicit evangelicalization in state and federally funded programs. Miracle Hill only recruits Protestant Christian families for its foster program and requires applicants to state their religious denomination and provide “their pastor’s contact information and a short testimony explaining how they came to be Christian,” reports Huffington Post.

Beth Lesser, the Jewish foster mentor applicant who was turned down by Miracle Hill, told the Intercept that she believes the explicit intent of Miracle Hill is to proselytize foster children. Once they get [the children] in one of their group homes, they don’t let non-Christian Protestants mentor them, foster them, or anything,” she said. “And then once they get the kids in there, their whole objective is to indoctrinate them into their brand of Christianity.”

This is a far cry from Catholic social welfare agencies like Catholic Charities, which have professionalized staff and eschew proselytization. In their eagerness to secure their right to discriminate against same-sex couples as a last-ditch protest against the legalization and acceptance of same-sex marriage, the Catholic bishops appear willing to enable other faith-based actors who use social service agencies as a means to an end. When Texas passed the “Freedom to Serve Children Act,” which specifically allows discrimination against people of other faiths (one of ten states that have passed measures that allow faith-based social service agencies to discriminate against individuals who violate their “sincerely held” religious beliefs), the Texas Catholic Conference of Bishops backed the measure.