Fighting Discrimination

AU’s Top Ten of 2023: Biden administration takes steps to protect religious freedom

  Liz Hayes

Editor’s Note: For the next two weeks, “The Wall of Separation” blog will recount the top 10 church-state stories from 2023. Today we review the progress the Biden Administration has made in rolling back harmful Trump-era policies.

Back in 2020, shortly after President Joe Biden was elected president, Americans United produced an “Agenda to Restore & Protect Religious Freedom” – a suggested “to-do” list for the new administration to roll back harmful regulations enacted by the Trump administration and enact new policies to protect and enforce church-state separation.

We’re pleased to say the Biden administration is making progress on many of the action items in our agenda. These are some of the advances that have occurred in the last year:

Biden Administration advances to protect religious freedom:

  • Restored protections against workplace discrimination for employees of federal contractors: The Department of Labor in February rescinded a Trump administration rule that had expanded a religious exemption allowing federal contractors to discriminate in hiring. The harmful Trump policy had encouraged and allowed nominally religious and even for-profit federal contractors to use religion to discriminate against workers, especially LGBTQ+ people and women. 
  • Proposed to restore contraceptive access to college students and workers: The Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) in January proposed critical changes to Trump administration rules that allowed employers and universities to cite religious or moral beliefs to deny birth control access guaranteed by the Affordable Care Act.
  • Proposed to stop forcing universities to sponsor student groups that discriminate: The Department of Education in February proposed to rescind a Trump-era rule (backed by former Education Secretary Betsy DeVos) that threatened to revoke federal funding for public colleges and universities that refuse to recognize religious student clubs with discriminatory policies. The Biden administration’s proposed change means students won’t be forced to subsidize clubs that discriminate against them. And colleges won’t be forced to choose between protecting students and losing federal funding, or allowing discrimination against students in order to keep federal financial assistance.
  • Proposed to restore religious freedom protections for people who use federally funded social services: In January, nine federal agencies proposed changes to the regulations that govern partnerships between the government and faith-based social service providers like food banks, domestic violence shelters, job training centers and elder care facilities. The proposal would restore protections the Trump administration had stripped away and ensure people who rely on these providers know they can’t be discriminated against because of their religious beliefs, can’t be forced to pray or participate in religious activities to access services, and can file a complaint if their rights are violated, among other protections. 
  • Updated federal guidance on religious expression and prayer in public schools: In response to misleading guidance issued by the Trump administration, as well as Christian Nationalist efforts to distort the Supreme Court’s 2022 decision in AU’s case Kennedy v. Bremerton School District, the Biden Administration in May updated guidelines that center the religious freedom of public school students, reaffirm that public schools must be open and inclusive for students of every religion and none, and emphasize that public school employees, including teachers and coaches, may not coerce students to pray.

And right before 2023 began, the Biden administration late last December also proposed to rescind parts of the Denial of Care Rule, which invited health care workers to deny medical treatment and services to patients because of personal religious or moral beliefs.

Americans United advocated for change

“Americans United has worked tirelessly to bring an end to Trump-administration policies that sought to transform religious freedom from a shield that protects people into a sword to harm others,” AU President and CEO Rachel Laser said, acknowledging the extensive efforts of AU’s Policy and Legal departments to spur these changes through advocacy and litigation.

“We’re pleased that the Biden administration has proposed to roll back many harmful Trump-era regulations that deal with birth control access, denial of medical care, and religious freedom protections for people who rely on government-funded services,” Laser said in February. “While there is more work to be done, these are important steps on the path toward a country that promises the freedom and equality that come with church-state separation.”

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