Mar 31, 2016

Final regulations issued by the Obama administration today that cover the relationship between government and faith-based social-service providers should go a long way toward improving protections for individual religious liberty rights, says Americans United for Separation of Church and State.

The regulations, which will affect nine federal agencies, were unveiled in draft form last year. They are the culmination of efforts by religious freedom advocates who worked with the administration over the past seven years to reform the “faith-based” initiative, which was adopted by the George W. Bush administration.

“If taxpayer money is going to flow into the coffers of religious groups to provide social services, there must be rules in place to protect those receiving the services from unwanted proselytism and religious discrimination,” said AU Legislative Director Maggie Garrett. “These new regulations are a big step in the right direction, although problems still remain with the faith-based initiative.”

The new regulations clarify that faith-based groups providing federally funded social services cannot discriminate against beneficiaries based on religion, require them to participate in religious activities or offer “explicitly religious activities” within those programs. The regulations also require that beneficiaries be given written notice of their rights, and if they object to the religious character of the organization, the organization must “undertake reasonable efforts” to find another provider and give a referral.

Last October, Americans United provided detailed comments on the draft regulations and also joined comments submitted by 31 members of the Coalition Against Religious Discrimination (CARD), which Americans United chairs.

Americans United Executive Director the Rev. Barry W. Lynn, who was part of a diverse task force that offered advice to the White House on how it should reform the rules that apply to these government partnerships, said there should be widespread support for these new religious-liberty protections. But these new regulations don’t resolve every issue with the faith-based initiative.

For example, Americans United has long asked the administration to address the issue of religious hiring discrimination in federally funded programs. These new regulations don’t do that. This means the administration is still enforcing Bush-era rules allowing faith-based organizations that get government grants and contracts to provide social services to reject qualified job applicants on religious grounds to work in those taxpayer-funded programs.

Lynn said he is disappointed that the administration once again side-stepped the issue of religious hiring bias in tax-funded programs.

“It’s great that the administration has implemented rules to better protect the religious freedom of beneficiaries of these programs,” said Lynn. “The administration should now put a stop to federally funded employment discrimination, which remains a blot on the president’s record on civil rights.”