When it comes to private social service agencies that seek taxpayer money, the government’s first priority is supposed to be the best interests of the vulnerable people who need those services.
With a series of regulations proposed in January and February, the Trump administration is proposing to flip that bedrock principle on its head and instead prioritize the religious beliefs of faith-based organizations, to the detriment of the people they serve.
On Jan. 16 – National Religious Freedom Day, no less – eight federal agencies issued proposed regulations that would roll back religious freedom protections for people who rely on services provided by faith-based social-service agencies that receive billions in taxpayer dollars. Similar regulations from a ninth agency were released on Feb. 13.
“These rules undermine the civil rights and religious freedom of millions of our most vulnerable Americans who rely on social services – with particularly dire consequences for LGBTQ people and religious minorities,” said AU President and CEO Rachel Laser in a statement that was reported by the Associated Press, ABC News, Fox News and others.
“No one should be denied the help they need because their government-funded provider condemns who they are, who they love, or what they believe,” Laser added.
One of the protections the Trump regulations would eliminate is the requirement that social service agencies take reasonable steps to refer people to alternative providers if requested. This protection ensures that people have other options if a faith-based provider signals religious beliefs that make the beneficiary uncomfortable or are offensive to the beneficiary. Eliminating this protection means that people may be forced into the untenable situation of choosing between their personal religious beliefs and receiving vital help they need.
The Trump administration also proposes to strip the requirement that faith-based organizations must provide written notice of people’s religious freedom rights – which could result in those in need not knowing they can object to discrimination, proselytization or religious coercion. For people who receive social services through a voucher program (referred to as “indirect aid”), Trump proposed to eliminate the safeguard ensuring there is always at least one secular provider to choose from. This rollback greatly increases the likelihood that people will be forced to attend taxpayer-funded programs that include explicitly religious content.
Traditionally, the government permitted some faith-based providers in voucher programs to include religious content because people theoretically had a choice of using a voucher at either a secular or a faith-based program and could, therefore, opt out of a religious program while still receiving comparable services elsewhere. The administration is undercutting this justification by removing the requirement that there be a secular option – again forcing vulnerable people to choose between their religious beliefs and receiving critical services.
The new regulations also would give taxpayer-funded providers more leeway to discriminate against employees by using a religious litmus test when considering who to hire or fire. The Trump administration proposes to expand religious exemptions created by President George W. Bush, which allowed faith-based agencies to discriminate by hiring only people of the same religion, to now include discrimination against people who don’t live by the same religious tenets or practice their faith the same way. LGBTQ people and women are likely to face the most harm from this proposal. This change is similar to a rule proposed by Trump’s Department of Labor last August for federal contractors, who employ one-fifth of the U.S. workforce.
One other significant element of Trump’s proposed regulations is to add special notices to grant announcements and awards alerting faith-based organizations that they can seek additional, unspecified religious exemptions from federal laws and regulations. In other words, at the same time that the Trump administration is removing religious freedom protections for the people who rely on these services, the government is adding special considerations for the taxpayer-funded providers – placing their needs above the people they serve and paving the way for more government-funded discrimination.
These regulations could harm millions of people who rely on a vast array of programs through the Departments of Agriculture, Education, Justice, Health and Human Services, Homeland Security, Housing and Urban Development, Labor and Veterans Affairs plus the U.S. Agency for International Development. Some examples of harmful situations people could experience include:
• A gay teenager who is homeless might have to seek assistance from a faith-based shelter with anti-LGBTQ views.
• A Jewish person might have to seek mental health counseling from an organization adorned with Christian iconography and literature indicating that people must have a personal relationship with Jesus Christ in order to be saved.
• An atheist required to attend a substance use disorder program could be forced into a 12-step program that requires the recognition of a higher power, setting up a nontheist for failure.
• A teenager who is considered at risk of being involved in the juvenile justice system or having substance use issues could seek one-on-one mentoring services from a community member who pressures them to attend religious programing that the teen doesn’t realize they can decline.
• A woman and her children who are survivors of domestic violence that she believes was rooted in her abuser’s religious beliefs could be left with no option for housing assistance but a faith-based provider with a religious environment that feels traumatizing for the mother and child.
• An immigrant child unaccompanied by a parent could end up in the care of a religious provider that would deny transportation and translation services for medical appointments for services the provider opposes on religious grounds, such as reproductive care or LGBTQ services.
Americans United submitted detailed comments to each of the agencies outlining how the proposed regulations undermine religious freedom and would harm some of the most marginalized and vulnerable people in our country. AU also rallied supporters to submit their objections to the agencies and assisted allied organizations, including those that are members of the Coalition Against Religious Discrimination that AU leads, in commenting on the regulations.
American United has an extensive history of monitoring and analyzing regulations for faith-based organizations, voicing opposition to rules that would undermine separation of religion and government and supporting proposals that protect religious freedom and beneficiaries.
During his first weeks in office, Bush signed an executive order that created the White House Office of Faith-Based & Community Initiatives. His administration soon followed with new regulations for government partnerships with faith-based organizations that were designed to strip away key church-state separation protections that had applied to these partnerships for decades. Bush made it easier for these organizations to proselytize to people seeking services, including through the display of religious materials in spaces where social services were provided. Bush also allowed taxpayer-funded providers to engage in employment discrimination by hiring only “co-religionists” – people of the same faith.
President Barack Obama revised and improved these regulations at the advice of an advisory council he’d convened that represented a diverse spectrum of faith leaders. They met for months before submitting an exhaustive report with 12 unanimous recommendations for improving how government-funded service providers operate.
The Obama regulations – which remain in effect unless or until Trump finalizes his proposed rules – require providers to give people written notice of their rights, including that the provider cannot discriminate against them based on religious beliefs or force people to participate in religious activities. Obama also required faith-based organizations to take reasonable steps to find an alternative provider if a beneficiary objects to an organization’s religious character.
By contrast, there is no evidence that the Trump administration used an organized process or consulted a diverse group of faith leaders and policy experts before proposing these new regulations.
“On Religious Freedom Day of all days, we must make clear that religious freedom demands that everyone be free to practice their faith, or no faith at all, but only so long as they don’t harm others,” AU’s Laser said in response to the new rules. “Religious freedom is not a license to grant unparalleled religious privilege.”