A Federal Agency Is Hiding Public Comments About Its Policies Concerning Faith-Based Organizations. AU Would Like To Know Why.

Last month, Americans United, along with more than 10,000 other individuals and organizations, filed public comments with the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS). HHS had asked the public whether it should give new religious exemptions to faith-based organizations that accept grants and contracts from the department to provide services to the public. We answered no.

What HHS was really asking for is how it could change its rules to allow groups to apply their own religious litmus test to decide who to hire and serve and what services to provide within HHS-funded programs. 

In our comments, 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. 

Is the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services afraid to publicly acknowledge criticism of its policies?

We also joined the comments filed by 45 members of the Coalition Against Religious Discrimination that urged HHS to not expand religious exemptions for religious organizations they partner with. And countless of our allies filed similar comments as well.

It looks like the overwhelming response saying that it’s a bad idea to give federal contractors and grantees religious exemptions that allow them to discriminate has gotten the attention of the HHS. But HHS’s reaction has been to hide our criticism.

In fact, HHS has published only 80 of the 12,302 comments filed. And it’s probably no great surprise that most of the comments HHS chose to publish seem to support allowing taxpayer-funded discrimination. In fact, according to Politico, “Sources with knowledge of HHS' decision say the agency hand-picked the comments that it released.” Neither AU’s comments nor CARD’s comments have been published on the website.

Immediately after we filed our comments, we also filed a Freedom of Information Act request with HHS asking for all the comments filed and for documents that would reveal more about HHS’s plans. Even though the comments haven’t been made public yet, we expect that HHS will meet the upcoming deadline to send us this information because doing so would be easy and the agency would be violating the law otherwise.

But nothing’s straightforward with HHS these days. In fact, last week, there were reports that the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) , faand other divisions within HHS have banned certain words and phrases. For example, the CDC cannot use “vulnerable,” “entitlement,” “diversity,” “transgender,” “fetus,” “evidence-based” and “science-based” in its budget proposal.

Does HHS plan to try to erase more than 90 percent of public comments on its troubling request for information? We look forward to the agency’s response.