Ways & Means Oversight Subcommittee Chairman John Lewis (D-GA) and Worker and Family Support Subcommittee Chairman Danny K. Davis (D-IL) sent a letter to two the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) officials regarding an HHS waiver that exempts organizations from federal foster care religious non-discrimination rules under the Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA).
Congressman Lewis and Congressman Davis directed their inquiry to HHS Assistant Secretary of Administration for Children and Families, Lynn Johnson, and HHS Office of Civil Rights Director, Roger Severino. The letter is part of the Chairmen’s investigation into the decision by HHS to grant the waiver to foster care providers in South Carolina that screen foster parent applicants on the basis of religion and sexual orientation.
The members noted in their letter that the decision to grant the waiver “may have been made without sufficient consultation with internal and external experts, including career civil servants who administer federal foster care programs and outside experts on foster care policy. We fear,” the letter continues, “that HHS’s action will exacerbate the current shortage of foster parents and the current increase in youth entering and remaining in care, leaving our most vulnerable children without stable homes.”
The chairmen requested HHS provide a range of information, including:
• The process that HHS established to conduct a review of foster care waivers from religious non-discrimination requirements;
• To identify which foster care specialists and experts – both at HHS and externally – HHS consulted to determine the impact of the waiver on South Carolina’s ability to match children with qualified foster parents, and provide any analysis conducted by HHS staff of the impact of the waiver;
• All documents and communications related to the January waiver among employees and officials of HHS, as well as between HHS and employees at the White House or the Executive Office of the President;
• How HHS’s granting of waivers from religious non-discrimination requirements promotes the best interests of children involved in the child welfare system; and
• All states that have requested or inquired about a waiver from religious non-discrimination requirements related to foster care providers, including all documents and communications about such requests or inquiries
The week before 40 senators issued a letter to HHS Secretary Alex Azar critical of the South Carolina waiver stating:
“With this waiver, HHS has openly condoned taxpayer-funded discrimination and elevated the religious beliefs of state-contracted foster care providers over the best interest of vulnerable children in the foster care system…With HHS’s stamp of approval, Miracle Hill Ministries and other South Carolina faith-based foster care agencies can now legally turn away qualified foster and adoptive parents just because they do not share the agency’s faith. This unprecedented action runs counter not only to the principles on which the United States was founded, but also to the goals of the foster care system.”