Under President Joe Biden, the White House’s Office of Faith-Based & Neighborhood Partnerships seems to be moving in a new direction. Biden’s executive order reestablishing the partnership office recognizes that it must “preserv[e] our fundamental constitutional commitments” to equal protection and church-state separation. And longtime church-state advocate Melissa Rogers will lead the office.
But there’s much more work to be done. Over the past four years, the Trump administration stripped religious freedom protections from regulations and issued memoranda, policies and executive orders encouraging the misuse of religious freedom to justify discrimination. Even before Trump, leftover policies from the Bush administration’s “Faith-Based Initiative” allowed federal contractors and grantees to discriminate in employment with taxpayer dollars.
Today, 77 religious, civil rights, labor, health, secular and women’s organizations wrote to Rogers to urge the White House’s Faith-Based Office to restore critical religious freedom protections and chart a new path forward with even more robust protections. As members and allies of the Coalition Against Religious Discrimination (CARD), they include diverse groups ranging from the Presbyterian Church (USA) to the Union for Reform Judaism, the National Education Association, National Women’s Law Center, the Baptist Joint Committee for Religious Liberty, the NAACP, the Autistic Self Advocacy Network, the National Council of Churches, the ACLU, Human Rights Campaign, and us at Americans United.
All of us agree that faith-based organizations, like secular organizations, should not be allowed to take government funds and then place religious litmus tests on whom they hire, whom they serve, or what services required under the program to provide. Our letter urges the White House to take several concrete actions, including:
1. Restoring safeguards in social service programs that were stripped by the Trump administration in their Faith-Based Regulations. Trump’s regulations removed requirements that people who are receiving taxpayer-funded social services get notice of their religious freedom rights, including that they could request a referral to another provider if they are uncomfortable with the religious character of the current provider. The Trump regulations also ended the requirement that people who get services through a voucher program (known as “indirect aid”) had at least one secular option to choose from. The result: Trump’s rules could lead to people – especially religious minorities and the nonreligious, women and LGBTQ people – foregoing the services they need for fear of religious coercion or because they aren’t informed about their rights.
That’s why Americans United, along with our allies at Democracy Forward and Lambda Legal, filed a federal lawsuit against the Trump administration to challenge this rollback of religious freedom protections for vulnerable people who use taxpayer-funded social services. We’re suing on behalf of several organizations, including MAZON: A Jewish Response to Hunger and Services & Advocacy for GLBT Elders (SAGE), that fund and provide services to vulnerable communities.
Although this lawsuit is in the pipeline, Biden can fix this problem immediately by issuing new regulations that restore the religious freedom safeguards for people who receive social services.
2. Ending federally funded employment discrimination. Existing policies allow taxpayer-funded contractors and grantees to use religion to discriminate against their employees. Biden must ensure that no one is denied a government-funded job because they are the “wrong” religion.
3. Undoing policies, memoranda and guidance by the Trump administration that misused federal religious freedom law. Previous administrations issued policies that misused the Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA) to justify religious exemptions to laws that bar discrimination. The Biden White House must rescind these policies and clarify that RFRA cannot be used to violate the civil rights of others. RFRA must be a shield to protect religious freedom, not a sword to allow discrimination.
The Biden White House has a lot to do to restore the damage to our religious freedom rights of the last four years, and has an important opportunity to chart a new path that will protect religious freedom for all Americans. With this CARD letter supported by 77 organizations, we hope they will use our blueprint for where to start.