Let Them ServeChelsea Sobolik May/June 2023
Religious freedom for faith-based adoption agencies is under threat, and the welfare of vulnerable children and families is on the line.
Faith-based agencies and people of faith have always played a significant role in caring for vulnerable children in the United States. Christians, for instance, have a biblical directive to care for the vulnerable and the fatherless. Throughout Scripture we see numerous instances of God protecting orphans and urging His followers to do the same (James 1:27; Psalm 68:5, 6).
In 1853 a Methodist minister named Charles Loring Brace, often hailed as the father of the foster care movement, began helping place children into foster families. Reverend Brace, along with several others ministers, started the Children’s Aid Society in New York City. At the time, their work assisting homeless children and children with disabilities was both revolutionary and countercultural. In the decades following Brace’s work, many thousands of people of faith have committed their lives to caring for vulnerable children, working to ensure that every child has a safe, permanent, and loving home. In fact, the Children’s Aid Society continues to partner with the state of New York to care for thousands of children.
Today the need is even greater for more and stronger public-private partnerships to care for the growing numbers of women, children, and families in need of care and support.
I’ve spent my career working on child welfare, in various capacities. When I worked in Congress, my boss co-led Congress’s largest bipartisan, bicameral caucus—the adoption caucus. I’ve seen firsthand the great need, both in the United States and around the world, for more people to care for vulnerable children.
I now work for Lifeline Children’s Services, the nation’s largest evangelical adoption agency. Lifeline’s mission is unapologetically faith-driven: we exist to equip the body of Christ to manifest the gospel to vulnerable children. To that end, we serve children and families through private domestic and international adoption, family restoration, and pregnancy counseling. Our goal is to wholistically serve women and families by seeking to meet physical, emotional, and spiritual needs.
Child welfare issues are also deeply personal for me. I was adopted internationally as an infant, and my husband and I are currently in our international process adoption. When we were deciding which adoption agency to use, we intentionally selected one that shared our own faith and values. The adoption process is deeply personal and intimate. Every area of your life is under a microscope—your finances, physical health, mental health, family history, and ability to parent. Not only is it important for prospective adoptive parents to be allowed to select an agency that aligns with their faith, but expectant mothers who are considering adoption also deserve robust options.
A Vital Lifeline
Currently there are approximately 391,000 children in the U.S. foster care system, with approximately one-fourth of those children eligible for adoption.1 State and local officials across the country constantly struggle to recruit and retain high-quality foster families. Almost every day, I read another news headline urging families to consider caring for children and youth in foster care.
Faith-based agencies can help recruit high-quality foster families, filling an important void in providing much-needed assistance to children in need. Additionally, practicing Christians are more than twice as likely to adopt, compared to the general population, with Catholics three times as likely, and Evangelicals five times as likely.2
One reason public-private partnerships with faith-based organizations are so successful in the child welfare space is that faith communities can wholistically wrap around families—something that’s beyond the government’s ability. Faith-based communities do more than merely help meet material needs; they can also meet emotional, relational, and spiritual needs.
A recent report from Harvard found that 36 percent of respondents reported serious loneliness. This included 61 percent of young people aged 18-25 and more than half of mothers with young children.3 The COVID-19 pandemic exposed the deep loneliness that so many people face, and the church can provide steady and committed communities. Scripture teaches that every person is created in the image of God and has innate dignity, worth, and value (Genesis 1:27). Our care for vulnerable women, children, and families is rooted in their value as individuals made in the imago Dei.
Therefore, collaboration between public and private agencies provides a vital way to meet the diversity of needs of the children and youth represented in foster care.
The Post-Roe World
On June 24, 2022, the U.S. Supreme Court handed down its much-anticipated decision in Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization. This case examined whether Mississippi’s law banning nearly all abortions after 15 weeks’ gestational age was unconstitutional. The court concluded that the Constitution does not confer a right to abortion, and reversed the precedents set in Roe v. Wade and Planned Parenthood v. Casey. Because of the Dobbs decision, the issue of abortion is now largely governed at a state level.
Thousands of children in the womb will now have the opportunity for life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. Approximately 76 percent of women have said that they would choose to parent if their circumstances were different.4 We must be ready to meet these women with consistent support. For each woman who is unable to parent, we should lovingly walk alongside her to make an adoption placement for her child.
Targeting Faith-based Agencies
While people of faith have been deeply committed to child welfare and protection for many decades, more recently they are being targeted because of their deeply held religious convictions.
Take, for instance, the travails of a South Carolina Christian organization, Miracle Hill Ministries. In 2018 South Carolina governor Henry McMaster requested a waiver from a Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) Obama-era regulation that would compel faith-based organizations to violate their deeply held religious convictions about human sexuality. The requested waiver was based on the Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA). The purpose of this 1993 law is to support a religiously pluralistic society by allowing for institutions and individuals with different viewpoints to participate in the public square.
At the time, the HHS regulation was threatening both the funding and the license of Miracle Hill Ministries. Yet Miracle Hill was providing a vital service—it helped recruit 15 percent of the state’s foster families and played an important role in caring for vulnerable children in need.
In January 2019 the Department of Health and Human Services granted a religious liberty waiver for South Carolina’s faith-based organizations. While that announcement was good news, the relief didn’t last long. In November 2021 the Biden administration rescinded the waiver.
Thankfully, Becket Law Firm has since intervened on Miracle Hill’s behalf and is working to ensure that the government cannot exclude religious groups by demanding they give up their religious beliefs to continue providing much-needed social services.
While some organizations that serve children, such as Lifeline, don’t take federal or state funding, the reality is that the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution protects a state’s right to partner with faith-based institutions. Our government should allow all organizations to serve.
Today’s Legal Landscape
In June 2021 the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in a case closely watched by religious freedom advocates. The Court held unanimously in Fulton v. City of Philadelphia that “Philadelphia’s refusal to contract with Catholic Social Services for the provision of foster care services unless CSS agrees to certify same-sex couples as foster parents violated the free exercise clause of the First Amendment.” This unanimous decision was good news for vulnerable children in Philadelphia and sets an important precedent for similar cases that might arise.
However, in December 2022 the Respect for Marriage Act was signed into law by President Biden. The introduction and passage of this bill was a direct response to the Supreme Court’s decision in Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization. Some believed this threatened the right to same-sex marriage upheld by the earlier Court decision in Obergefell v. Hodges—even though the majority in Dobbs explicitly affirmed that “nothing in this opinion should be understood to cast doubt on precedents that do not concern abortion.”
In this post-Roe world, Congress should have focused on legislation that would support vulnerable children, women, and families. Instead, legislators are focusing their attention on a bill that could ultimately harm children. Support for heterosexual marriage isn’t merely rooted in the Christian faith. According to many, heterosexual marriage advances the common good and aids in the flourishing of societies, especially for the protection, well-being, and flourishing of children. As Princeton professor Robert George states: “Marriage is an important public good, associated with a range of economic, health, educational, and safety benefits that help local, state, and federal governments serve the common good.”5
The Respect for Marriage Act went well beyond the Supreme Court’s decision in Obergefell creating an allowance for same-sex marriage. In Section 2, the phrase “under color of law of a State . . .” means nongovernmental actors who sometimes carry out duties that would typically be associated with “the State” could be found guilty even though the actor was not an official or employee of the state, county, city, or any other governmental unit. An example of such a nongovernmental actor is child welfare organizations, or even individual families who choose to become foster families. This language is troubling because it is vague, open to interpretation, and could be used to penalize organizations or individuals whom the government deems is acting in a “discriminating” manner. While the final version of the Respect for Marriage Act did include some religious freedom protection, it didn’t go far enough to clearly protect the consciences of individuals and institutions.
A Better Way
While the government has an important role to play in caring for vulnerable children, governments aren’t properly equipped to meet the complex and unique needs of each community and each child. That is why public-private partnerships around the country are vital—the issues are simply too large for government to solve alone. As policymakers consider how best to care for children, they must also be mindful of enacting policies that allow for flourishing partnerships to continue.
In the 117th Congress, Senator Tim Scott (R-SC) and Representative Mike Kelly (R-PA) introduced the Child Welfare Provider Inclusion Act (CWPIA), “a bill to ensure state and local governments cannot discriminate against faith-based adoption and foster care providers by forcing them to choose between offering these vital services and violating their deeply held religious beliefs.” Congress should swiftly reintroduce and pass this legislation protecting faith-based institutions.
Currently there are nine states with state-level laws to protect faith-based institutions. Yet, in a divided Congress, more states throughout the country must focus on enacting laws that protect institutions and individuals in their states.
It is clear that people of faith and faith-based agencies have a vital role in child protection, child welfare, and the flourishing of families. Moreover, the Constitution protects the right of all Americans to act according to their religious beliefs while they serve their neighbors. In this post-Roe world, let us resolve to care wholistically for women, children, and families. And in our pluralistic society, may our laws allow for more people, not fewer, to care well for our nation’s most vulnerable—our children.
1 The AFCARS Report: Preliminary FY1 2021 Estimates as of June 28, 2022—No. 29, U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, Administration for Children and Families, Administration on Children, Youth and Families, Children’s Bureau, https://www.acf.hhs.gov/cb.
2 Barna Group, Becoming Home: Adoption, Foster Care, and Mentoring—Living Out God’s Heart for Orphans (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2014).
3 Richard Weissbourd, Milena Batanova, Virginia Lovison, and Eric Torres, Loneliness in America: How the Pandemic Has Deepened an Epidemic of Loneliness and What We Can Do About It, Making Caring Common Project (Cambridge, MA: Harvard Graduate School of Education, 2021).
4 Ericka Andersen, “ ‘Greater Level of Desperation’: As COVID-19 Rages, Pregnancy Centers See Surge in Demand,” USA Today, Aug. 9, 2020.
5 Sherif Girgis, Robert P. George, Ryan T. Anderson, “What Is Marriage?” Harvard Journal of Law and Public Policy 34, no. 1 (2010): 245–287.
Article Author: Chelsea Sobolik
Chelsea Sobolik serves as the senior director of policy and advocacy for Lifeline Children’s Services, the nation’s leading evangelical child welfare organization. Prior to joining Lifeline, she was the director of policy for the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission (ERLC). Previously she worked on Capitol Hill on pro-life policies, domestic and international religious freedom, adoption, and foster care issues. Chelsea has been published in the Wall Street Journal, USA Today, The Gospel Coalition, Christianity Today, and other outlets. She is the author of Longing for Motherhood: Holding On to Hope in the Midst of Childlessness, and a forthcoming book on women and work.