Discrimination in Social Services

Americans United’s Agenda To Restore Religious Freedom: Protect People Who Receive Social Services

  Rob Boston

Editor’s Note: This week, “The Wall of Separation” blog continues its series of special posts examining the policy proposals in AU’s “Agenda to Restore & Protect Religious Freedom.” Developed by Americans United’s Public Policy Department, the agenda lists 10 proposals the incoming administration of Joe Biden and Kamala Harris can take to undo the damage done to church-state separation during the Trump years.

The coronavirus pandemic has exposed just how fragile economic realities are for many Americans. A job loss or illness or death in a family can take a person from a position of comfort to a food bank in a matter of days.

When times get tough, growing numbers of Americans rely on social services. They should be able to get those services – whether it’s provision of food, job training, substance abuse counseling, elder care, etc. – without worrying about being pressured to take part in religious worship. Thanks to Trump administration policies, it’s getting harder to do that.

In the United States, the social safety net tends to be slapped together piecemeal. Governments rarely provide services directly and instead rely on private entities to provide these services with taxpayer funding. In the 1990s, so-called “faith-based” initiatives became popular. The idea was that because religious organizations were already providing many social services, they could be bolstered with public funding.

The Trump administration broke with precedent by proposing rules to strip religious-freedom safeguards from vulnerable people who use these services. To note just two examples, in one case, the administration allowed foster care agencies to use religion to discriminate against potential parents, and in another, it proposed allowing taxpayer-funded, church-run shelters to turn away transgender people facing homelessness.

As AU’s Samantha Sokol noted yesterday, just days ago, the Trump administration issued rules that would roll back nine federal agencies’ regulations that provide protections for people who work for taxpayer-funded social services run by religious groups. These rules also threaten the rights of people who use these services.

“These latest Trump administration rules undermine the civil rights and religious freedom of millions of our country’s most vulnerable people who rely on social services,” AU President and CEO Rachel Laser said. “People should never be forced to choose between obtaining taxpayer-funded services they desperately need and remaining true to their personal religious beliefs and identity.”

In particular, the Trump rules stripped an Obama-era requirement that providers give beneficiaries written notice of their rights, including that the provider cannot discriminate against beneficiaries based on their religion or force beneficiaries to participate in religious activities. The Trump rules also eliminated the requirement that, if a beneficiary objects to the religious character of a provider, the provider must take reasonable steps to find an alternative for the beneficiary. For example, an LGBTQ person might not feel comfortable going to a religious provider if they know the entity professes religious beliefs that reject LGBTQ people and rights, or a Jewish person might feel uncomfortable getting services provided in a church with a crucifix on the wall.

The incoming Biden administration must reverse these misguided policies. Not only are the Trump rules constitutionally suspect, but they are also simply immoral and wrong. Americans often approach social service agencies at a difficult time in their lives. They may be grappling with a job loss or some other form of trauma. While it’s always wrong to subject people to unwanted proselytism in taxpayer-funded programs, it’s especially troubling when those people may conclude that their choice is to take part in worship even if they don’t want to or go without the help they need.

The Biden-Harris administration should immediately take steps to ensure that no American is ever forced to make that choice.

Please help us protect the rights of Americans who receive social services by joining Americans United.

Congress needs to hear from you!

Urge your legislators to co-sponsor the Do No Harm Act today.

The Do No Harm Act will help ensure that our laws are a shield to protect religious freedom and not used as a sword to harm others by undermining civil rights laws and denying access to health care.

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