The Trump/Pence Administration’s Disturbing Efforts to Demolish the Separation of Church and State, Starting with Kids in Foster Care

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August 23, 2019
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In recent years, we have seen increased efforts to exclude same-sex couples from fostering and adopting children. Several states have introduced or passed “license to discriminate” laws which permit taxpayer-funded, government-contracted child placing agencies (CPAs) to refuse to serve families that fail to meet their religious litmus tests.

Earlier this year, the Trump/Pence administration waded into this issue, granting CPAs in South Carolina a waiver from federal nondiscrimination regulations. As a result, Lambda Legal sued them both.

With ongoing assaults on multiple national fronts, child welfare policy may not be at the forefront of many LGBTQ folks’ minds, but government-endorsement of religious discrimination has alarming and far-reaching implications for everyone who values the separation of church and state, as well as the welfare of children.

Within the child welfare system, such license to discriminate laws and policies are discriminatory towards not just same-sex couples, but towards all families of different faith traditions; both Jewish and Catholic families have been turned away from fostering or even just mentoring foster youth.

Discriminatory laws also disadvantage the 443,000 youth currently in foster care who need placements. Excluding qualified families reduces the pool of placement options for youth in care; same-sex couples are an important source of placements and actually are seven times more likely than different-sex couples to be raising a foster or adoptive child.

Additionally, LGBTQ youth are disproportionately represented in the child welfare system (making up 20%, as opposed to only 5-7% of the general population). 

Allowing agencies to work exclusively with families who oppose LGBTQ equality puts young people at risk of discrimination and other harms and deprives them of opportunities to be affirmed and supported.

Allowing agencies to work exclusively with families who oppose LGBTQ equality puts young people at risk of discrimination and other harms and deprives them of opportunities to be affirmed and supported.

But beyond these issues, efforts to permit discrimination in the child welfare system are concerning because they reflect a concerted effort – driven by the Religious Right and supported by the Trump/Pence administration – to enshrine a particular form of Evangelical Christianity into law and take away rights from LGBTQ people, same-sex couples, and anyone who doesn’t fit into a narrow, ultra-conservative definition of “family.”

Promoting and endorsing a specific view of “family” is the clear goal of license to discriminate bills. Model bills are included in a chilling legislative playbook known as “Project Blitz,” a strategy guide to write certain Christian fundamentalist principles in law.

The Project Blitz playbook includes language for dozens of model laws, from bills which would require “In God We Trust” to be displayed in all public school classrooms or require public schools to offer Bible literacy classes, to those that would limit adoption and foster care to only “intact heterosexual, marriage-based families,” or require the state to deny the existence of transgender and gender-nonconforming people.

In addition, the CPAs who advocate in support of these bills are often places like Bethany Christian Services – one of the largest faith-based child welfare agencies in the country – which has a concerning history of operating crisis pregnancy centers, at which women are coerced into continuing unwanted pregnancies and then giving up their children to exclusively Christian families.

Despite a problematic record of abuse, Bethany Christian Services (which is financially tied to Betsy DeVos) has alarmingly been given a government contract to provide foster care to refugee children separated from their parents at the border. (It’s important to note that the faith-based agencies advocating for discriminatory policies are a small minority. Many faith-based CPAs gladly work with same-sex couples and those of all faiths, and Bethany’s Philadelphia chapter has agreed not to discriminate.)

While efforts to legislate discrimination are not new, under the Trump/Pence administration, the federal government has joined hands with those pursuing these aims.

While efforts to legislate discrimination are not new, under the Trump/Pence administration, the federal government has joined hands with those pursuing these aims.

In addition to the waiver for South Carolina – an alarming reversal of the federal government’s commitment to nondiscrimination – rumors suggest that the administration plans to issue a nationwide waiver permitting discrimination.

Such a move would not be surprising, unfortunately, given that the administration has filled the leadership of federal agencies with ultra-conservative Christian activists. Mike Pence’s extremist anti-LGBTQ views have been well-documented, and President Trump has empowered others who seek similarly to deny rights to LGBTQ people and religious minorities.

HHS, an agency tasked with protecting health and providing essential services to all Americans, has been filled with prominent religious activists who have built their careers on opposing reproductive and LGBTQ rights. Roger Severino, the head of the Office of Civil Rights, spent his career at the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty opposing reproductive healthcare and LGBTQ rights. Shannon Royce, the Director of the Center for Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships, was previously in leadership at the anti-LGBTQ group Family Research Council.

By empowering ultra-conservative, anti-LGBTQ activists, the Trump/Pence administration is vigorously chipping away at one of core values of our nation: the separation of church and state.

By empowering ultra-conservative, anti-LGBTQ activists, the Trump/Pence administration is vigorously chipping away at one of core values of our nation: the separation of church and state.

To be clear, these efforts do not protect “religious freedom.” Instead, by promoting specific religious beliefs, the Trump administration is violating the Constitution’s First Amendment and wrongfully inhibiting individuals of other faiths from freely exercising their religion. Rather than enforcing nondiscrimination laws, the federal government is endorsing Christian beliefs.

These efforts are not only harmful to members of the LGBTQ community and patients seeking reproductive health care, but violate the constitutional rights of all Americans.

In addition to our lawsuits, Lambda Legal, along with local child welfare and LGBTQ advocates, is working to fight off state license to discriminate bills. And this year, we were successful in preventing any of these bills from becoming law!

We also helped draft the federal Every Child Deserves a Family Act, which would prohibit religiously-motivated discrimination in the child welfare system nationwide, and the Equality Act, which would prohibit anti-LGBTQ discrimination in programs receiving federal funds.