Pictured above: Wives Brandy Welch (L) and Eden Rogers (R).
One year during the holidays, Eden Rogers and Brandy Welch sat down with their daughters and drafted a list of all the things that they are or they strive to be. Every once in a while, they go over that joint mission statement, Rogers says, as an encouragement to “keep us in check.”
“We are grateful,” the mantra goes. “We are peaceful. We are loving. We are generous. We are kind. We are helpful. We will treat all living things with respect. We can go through all of our days with mindfulness. We love our family.”
Living that mantra has become more challenging, however, after Rogers and Welch were turned away from an adoption and foster care center because they didn’t meet the agency’s religious criteria. In April, the couple submitted an application to foster a child with Miracle Hill Ministries in their home city of Greenville, South Carolina. Having recently moved into a larger house, they figured their family could accommodate one more.
Welch and Rogers with their daughters, Jenny (L) and Olivia (R).
But within a matter of weeks, Rogers and Welch received a message from Miracle Hill claiming the agency “would not be a good fit to assist you in your quest … to become foster parents,” citing its evangelical beliefs.
Miracle Hill did offer the couple a consolation prize, however. It invited them to volunteer in its thrift store.
While the refusal letter specifically cited their regular attendance at a local Unitarian Universalist church as reason for the denial, it also cited a doctrinal statement that all couples must sign if they want to foster or adopt at Miracle Hill. The declaration proclaims that “God’s design for marriage is the legal joining of one man and one woman in a life-long covenant relationship.”
That proclamation, which includes language declaring that people are either born “male or female,” is currently available on Miracle Hill’s website. According to the couple, it was uploaded online after they were turned away.
“Once we were denied, they went and changed things to very clearly exclude families like ours,” Rogers tells NewNowNext.
To ensure other South Carolina families aren’t turned away in the name of faith, Rogers and Welch are taking the matter to court. In May, the couple filed a lawsuit challenging a waiver granted by the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) in January 2018. It allowed Miracle Hill to circumvent Obama-era policies banning agencies from refusing placement to same-sex couples if they receive state or federal funding.
Miracle Hill was awarded $600,000 in funding from the South Carolina Department of Social Services during the previous fiscal year.
According to the couple’s attorney, Currey Cook of the LGBTQ legal advocacy group Lambda Legal, the religious exemption issued by HHS violates the Equal Protection Clause and the Establishment Clause of the U.S. Constitution. The latter prevents the “entanglement of religion in the context of government services.”
Those documents grant Welch and Rogers the right to be “treated equally when trying to access government-funded programs,” as Cook explains.
“There really shouldn’t be any reason that any child welfare system is letting a contract agency use non-objective criteria that’s not related to a person’s ability to parent,” he tells NewNowNext. “If we were to have a state contractor take a parent’s kids away and suddenly say, ‘Well, you need to be X religion, or we’re not giving you your kids back,’ no one—absolutely no one—would think that that would be okay.”
The case is currently pending in the U.S. District Court for the District of South Carolina, where plaintiffs await a response from HHS, the South Carolina Department of Social Services, and South Carolina Gov. Henry McMaster. All are named as defendants in the lawsuit.
Cook expects the defendants to file a motion to dismiss the case.
While South Carolina’s DSS has declined to offer comment to media, representatives for McMaster have pointed to his earlier remarks on religious exemptions for adoption and foster care agencies. The Republican governor, who applied for the waiver on behalf of Miracle Hill in March 2018, claimed it “protects minors who are in need of as many options as possible for being placed in loving foster families.”
But critics say the waiver only reduces the likelihood that children in adoption and foster care will find loving homes. According to a 2017 report, the state of South Carolina needs to recruit 1,300 more foster parents to meet current demand.
Miracle Hill is the largest adoption and foster care agency of its kind in South Carolina, responsible for placing more than 400 children in foster care in 2017 alone. Its advertisements are ubiquitous throughout Greenville. There’s even a billboard right down the road from the Rogers and Welch’s home, which they have to drive past to get to work every day.
“The sign says, ‘Foster with Miracle Hill,’” Welch says. “It doesn’t say, ‘Foster with Miracle Hill if you’re a Christian and you go to a Christian church.’”
The couple and their attorney believe the law on their side following a series of positive court decisions. In April, the Third U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled unanimously that the city of Philadelphia has the right to refuse a contract to Catholic Charities for violating its nondiscrimination law by refusing to work with same-sex couples. The U.S. Supreme Court has declined to intervene in that case.
Meanwhile, U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia recently rejected a motion from HHS to dismiss a case involving a lesbian couple who were refused a license to foster refugee children. A Catholic Charities agency in Fort Worth, Texas told Bryn Esplin and Fatma Marouf they do not “mirror the holy family.”
While that case has not yet gone to trial, the memorandum from U.S. District Judge Amit Mehta gives Rogers and Welch reason for optimism.
“Surely, the government would not take this position if, say, Plaintiffs here were excluded from fostering a child based on their gender … national origin … or religious faith,” he wrote, as The Daily Beast originally reported. “The Federal Defendants wish to avoid the responsibility that comes with being good stewards of federal funds. They cannot do so.”
As the couple awaits further consideration of their case, they hope they have the opportunity to one day show a foster child what love looks like.
When the couple met 10 years ago, Rogers was raising her younger sister, who is now off at college. What initially attracted Rogers to her future wife, who was her next-door neighbor at the time, was that they “already felt like a family” when they spent time together. After going from neighbors to best friends and then later spouses, they would go on to raise two more children together, daughters aged 7 and 10.
Before their family began to coalesce bit by bit, Rogers says she never had the opportunity to experience love unconditionally. When asked what that means, Welch jumps in: “Loving someone no matter what they do, what they say, what they look like, or what decisions they make.”
The couple believes that policies like those pushed by the Trump administration denies that to children who desperately need it.
“Some of these children don’t have that,” Rogers says. “I think that it’s really important to be able to show them that family is not just about biology. We can create our own families, and we can love just as hard as biological families.”