Fighting Discrimination

Trump-Era Policies That Undermine Religious Freedom Still Exist. Americans United Is Targeting Them.

  Dena Sher

Trump-Era Policies That Undermine Religious Freedom Still Exist

The federal government routinely proposes policies that can affect all sorts of things in our everyday lives. While the regulatory and rulemaking process may seem arcane, it’s an important way to influence policy and advance church-state separation – and that’s why Americans United follows it closely.

Recently, AU weighed in on two sets of regulations that federal agencies are currently working to update – one would change the rules in nearly every federally funded social service program, like Head Start, job training and resettlement services for refugees, and another that changes the rules of the Public Service Loan Forgiveness (PSLF) program.

Since the 1990s, AU and the Coalition Against Religious Discrimination (CARD), which we lead, has worked to ensure that rules that apply to government partnerships with religious and other nonprofit social service providers include constitutional and legal safeguards. Faith-based organizations should follow the same rules as secular organizations and should not be allowed to take government funds and then pressure the people they serve to participate in religious activities, place religious litmus tests on whom they serve and hire, or refuse to provide services required under the program.

The Obama administration, after a lot of advocacy from AU and CARD, put in place regulations that strengthened religious freedom safeguards for participants in federally funded social service programs. Unfortunately, the Trump administration stripped these religious freedom protections and made other changes that undermine the rights of those whom social service programs are meant to serve; this made it harder for people to get the services they need. Those regulations put the interests of taxpayer-funded faith-based providers, some of which receive millions of dollars each year in taxpayer money, ahead of the needs of people, often a vulnerable and marginalized population, seeking critical social services.

AU put this at the top of our asks to the incoming Biden administration in 2020 and thankfully, the administration has signaled its intent to revise these regulations. Now AU and CARD are again advocating for religious freedom. CARD recently wrote a letter  to all nine federal agencies involved in the rulemaking process, urging that they restore critical protections for program participants and make certain that the regulations adhere to longstanding religious freedom principles. This will ensure faith-based organizations cannot take government funds and then discriminate in who they hire, serve and what services to provide.

The second set of regulations involved PSLF. This program forgives student loans of individuals who work in public service jobs and make loan payments for 10 years. The program was designed to encourage and reward public service. Though an important program, it has been riddled with administrative problems, and the Biden administration has now proposed rules to clarify and improve how it is run.

From the program’s inception until 2020, PSLF regulations included religious freedom protections that ensured that taxpayers do not fund religious activities such as religious worship. The Trump administration, though, stripped this safeguard from the regulations in 2020. AU organized some key allies and experts to submit comments on the Biden administration’s proposed rule. We wanted to remind the administration that despite the dangerous Supreme Court decisions in Carson v. Makin and Kennedy v. Bremerton School District, the Constitution still prohibits the government from funding religious activities. We asked that the administration ensure the PSLF regulations align with this fundamental religious freedom principle.

And that’s not all. AU is also planning how to respond to more proposed regulations that we expect soon from the Biden administration. We anticipate new rules to overturn Trump-era policies requiring public universities to allow religious student groups to discriminate; allowing health care providers to cite religious beliefs to deny people important medical services; allowing employers and universities to misuse religious freedom to deny people the Affordable Care Act’s birth control benefit; and carving out or expanding religious exemptions to laws barring discrimination in health care and education.

This work is often not glamorous, but it’s vital. That’s why AU will keep at it – and we’ll be sure to keep you up to date on all our work to advance the separation of church and state!

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