With all that has been going on lately, you might have overlooked two important lawsuits that Americans United and its allies filed on former president Donald Trump’s last full day in office. Both challenge eleventh-hour regulatory changes put in place by the Trump administration that threaten religious freedom.
The first case, Mazon: A Jewish Response to Hunger v. U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, targets a set of regulations that the Trump administration put into effect Jan. 19. The new regulations scrap provisions that had been put in place to protect people who need social services.
Specifically, the new regulations do away with requirements that taxpayer-funded, religiously affiliated social service providers inform the people they serve that they have the right to be free from religious discrimination and that they do not have to attend religious programming as a condition of getting help. The new regulations also eliminate a requirement that religiously affiliated providers give service recipients a referral to an alternative provider upon request and include this referral right in the rights notice.
There’s no sound reason for lifting these requirements; undoing them only serves to threaten the rights of an already vulnerable population. The move was another sop to Trump’s conservative evangelical base, and AU and its allies intend to restore the pre-Trump regulations. (You can read more about this litigation here.)
The second lawsuit, Secular Student Alliance v. U.S. Department of Education, was filed on behalf of the Secular Student Alliance and Declan A. Galli, a Cal Poly student, and challenges a recently published Trump administration regulation that forces universities to financially support religious student groups that discriminate.
Many public colleges and universities have policies mandating that student-run clubs that are supported by student fees have nondiscrimination policies. Beyond creating an inclusive learning environment, these policies ensure that students aren’t forced to support clubs that would reject them as members on the basis of things like religion, sexual orientation, gender identity or disability. Under a rule issued by former Education Secretary Betsy DeVos, public colleges would be required to give religious student clubs an opt-out from these nondiscrimination provisions.
Agencies like the Department of Education have only the authority that Congress gives them. The lawsuit argues that the department has no authority to enforce the First Amendment however it sees fit, and it certainly doesn’t have authority to enforce DeVos’ incorrect interpretation of it.
You might wonder why these lawsuits were filed as the Trump administration was on the way out the door. Won’t the Biden administration fix these problems? Unfortunately, it’s not that simple. Overturning rules like these generally requires a time-consuming and complicated process. Successful litigation might give us a speedier result.
Americans United is hopeful that the Biden-Harris administration will restore and protect religious freedom – in fact, we prepared an agenda for Biden to do just that. But lawsuits like the two we’ve just filed are a reminder that cleaning up the mess left behind by the Trump administration will take a lot of work – and some of it could most quickly be done through the courts. Join us to support the efforts to right Trump’s wrongs.