The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) just asked the public whether it should give new religious exemptions to faith-based organizations that accept grants and contracts to provide services to the public.

What HHS is really asking for is how the agency could change its rules to allow groups to use their own religious litmus test to decide who to hire and serve and what services to provide within HHS-funded programs. In response, Americans United told the agency that it’s a bad – and unconstitutional – idea to give these organizations religious exemptions that allow them to discriminate. We reminded HHS what’s in the Constitution: Religious freedom is fundamental, but it doesn’t give anyone the right to use religion as an excuse to discriminate, especially with taxpayer funds. And we also joined 44 of our allies in the Coalition Against Religious Discrimination (CARD) in filing a response to this request for information (RFI).

HHS’s request for information is based on the false notion that there are currently “barriers” that prevent faith-based organizations from partnering with the government to perform HHS services. But the RFI itself debunks this premise: It notes the many partnerships it already has with faith-based organizations and boasts that in 2007 alone, it gave at least $817 million in grants to these organizations. Changing the current rules for these partnerships is clearly unnecessary.

Taxpayer-funded faith-based groups should not be allowed to use religion as an instrument of discrimination.

At the same time, changing the rules could harm the very people these organizations are supposed to serve. What some faith-based providers identify as “barriers” actually are vital rules for HHS-funded programs that ensure everyone has access to the services they need. The kind of religious exemptions HHS seems to have in mind would result in harm and discrimination.

For example, a provider could take HHS funds and then claim a right to use religion to:

* Fire an employee because she is unmarried and pregnant or doesn’t go to worship services often enough;

* Refuse to serve LGBTQ clients; or

* Refuse to provide reproductive health services that it is required to provide under a contract or grant.

These religious exemptions would make it harder for people – particularly women, LGBTQ people, religious minorities, and nonbelievers – to get a taxpayer-funded job or access services they need.

The RFI came just weeks after the Department of Justice came out with guidance that is a blueprint for discrimination. The guidance includes far-reaching and inaccurate interpretations of the law in an effort to give a green light to religious exemptions, regardless of how an exemption would affect other people or the public interest. And now HHS is seeking advice on how to implement that guidance.  

The RFI invites faith-based contractors and grantees to tell HHS which sweeping exemptions they want but fails to ask how these exemptions would impact the people the HHS-funded programs are supposed to serve or the programs’ effectiveness.

The focus of HHS-funded programs should be to assist individuals by increasing access to health care and critical human services. Denying individuals the services they need undermines the very purpose of these programs.

Because discrimination and denial of service have no place in government programs, we are going to be vigilant. We are sending HHS a Freedom of Information Act request to find out more about HHS’s plans and will fight any attempts to use taxpayer dollars for discrimination.