We’re in the thick of the COVID-19 crisis – and as a result, millions of Americans are relying on government-funded social services for access to food, housing, job assistance and counseling. The miles-long lines of cars at food banks, sky-high unemployment claims and packed homeless shelters are just a sign of what’s to come as more Americans than ever are forced to turn to social service programs for help to weather the storm.
At this exact moment, the Trump administration is steamrolling through policy changes that target these vulnerable Americans by making it more difficult for them to get the services they need. Most recently, the administration has been pushing ahead with a proposed rule regarding Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) programs, but they’re also finalizing rules at eight other agencies. These new regulations all deal with the relationship between the government and faith-based social services organizations – some examples you may have heard of in your community are Catholic Charities, World Vision, Samaritan’s Purse and the Salvation Army. These faith-based organizations get taxpayer money to implement a broad swath of programs for housing, food, substance use treatment, counseling, veterans’ services, care for the elderly and more.
There are massive problems with the Trump administration proposed rules that we detailed in our nine different comments to the administration, including that they would:
- Eliminate religious freedom protections, including requirements to notify people of their rights or offer people an alternative provider;
- Expand exemptions for government-funded employment discrimination, making it easier for service providers to require a religious litmus test for government-funded jobs;
- Alert social service providers that they can seek even more religious exemptions from federal laws and regulations; and
- Likely harm LGBTQ people, women, religious minorities and the nonreligious the most.
Overall, Trump’s proposed rules are putting the interests of these institutions, some of which receive millions of dollars every year from the government, ahead of the vulnerable people they serve. No one should ever be faced with the stark choice between accessing the services they desperately need or retaining their religious freedom.
It’s obvious that these harmful policies will hurt even more at a time when millions of Americans’ lives and livelihoods are on the line. Fortunately, the federal policymaking process gives Americans the opportunity to tell the government how the policies will affect them through a public comment process.
The public comment process for HUD’s faith-based regulation was set to close on April 13. Recognizing how difficult it is for people to comment during this pandemic – especially those most affected by the rule – we sent a letter to the administration, along with 44 allied organizations, asking them to extend the public comment period for the during the COVID-19 emergency. Our allies who joined the request include organizations like the Jewish Federations of North America, the Arc of the United States and the National Low Income Housing Coalition members, who are providing direct services to vulnerable people during this time. We all noted that everyone deserves the opportunity to weigh in on these policy changes – especially the people needing services – and the COVID-19 crisis makes that difficult, if not impossible.
We’re not alone in this request. Associations that represent our nation’s states, cities, and counties, and 170 public interest, labor, and grassroots organizations representing millions of Americans have also requested a temporary suspension in federal agencies’ comment periods during the pandemic.
Just this week, we received a response from the Trump administration. Richard Youngblood, the Director of the Center for Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships in HUD, wrote to us to share that “it is inadvisable to extend the comment period.” In other words, they’re dashing ahead towards implementing these harmful policy changes, even during a global pandemic.
We still hope that when HUD reviews the comments they receive on these proposed rules, they listen to the voices of the people who are marginalized and struggling due to this crisis who ask them to reject these policy changes. Bottom line: there’s no worse time to ignore the religious freedom rights, basic needs, and dignity of people who need social services than right now.