Editor’s Note: The year 2021 was full of ups and downs – for the country, and for church-state separation. For the next two weeks, we’ll be looking back at the top 10 church-state stories, how Americans United rose to the challenge to defend religious freedom and what’s on the horizon for 2022.
As soon as the 2020 presidential election results were announced, Americans United issued an “Agenda to Restore & Protect Religious Freedom” for the Biden-Harris administration. The 10-point agenda included Trump-era actions that needed to be reversed or rescinded, as well as steps President Joe Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris should take to advance the foundational principle of religious freedom as the right for all of us to live as ourselves and believe as we choose.
Biden got off to a strong start – ticking off one of the agenda items on his first day in office. Here’s a look at some of the items on AU’s wish list that the Biden-Harris administration has addressed so far:
Repealing the Muslim and African bans: The day he was inaugurated, Biden issued a slew of executive orders. Among them was one ending former President Donald Trump’s cruel and discriminatory Muslim and African bans, which were clearly driven by hostility toward Muslims and their faith. As AU President and CEO Rachel Laser noted in a statement, “It is a crucial first step toward reuniting families and demonstrating President Biden’s commitment to protecting the rights of religious minorities.”
Protecting Federally Funded Employees From Religious Discrimination: Just last month, the Biden administration announced plans to rescind a Trump rule that allowed federal contractors to discriminate against workers and job applicants in the name of religion. The Trump rule made it easier for federal contractors (including for-profit corporations) to discriminate against LGBTQ people, women, religious minorities and the nonreligious. In formal comments submitted to the Department of Labor last week, Americans United and the Coalition Against Religious Discrimination, of which AU is a member, supported the department’s plan and urged officials to go a step further by eliminating a Bush-era religious exemption that allows taxpayer-funded nonprofit contractors to fire or refuse to hire employees of other faiths.
Rooting Out Religious Discrimination In Government-Funded Social Services: While AU continues to advocate for the Biden administration to restore critical religious freedom protections that were stripped by the Trump administration for vulnerable people who use social services, Biden’s Department of Health and Human Services recently took a positive step toward ending religion-based discrimination in one area of social services: foster care. The department in November announced it was rescinding exemptions granted by the Trump administration that allowed child welfare providers in several states to use religion to discriminate against potential foster parents. The Trump exemptions allowed taxpayer-funded foster care agencies to apply a religious litmus test to turn away prospective families, including AU client Aimee Maddonna – a Catholic mother of three who was rejected by a federally funded foster care agency in South Carolina because she’s the “wrong” religion.
The Biden-Harris administration has made several other positive strides toward protecting church-state separation – including disbanding Trump’s 1776 Commission that promoted a whitewashed, Christian nationalist narrative of U.S. history; restoring and expanding anti-discrimination protections for LGBTQ people; and appointing public officials like Melissa Rogers, Biden’s senior advisor on faith and public policy, who respect church-state separation.
While we celebrate what the Biden-Harris administration has done so far to restore and protect religious freedom, there is more work ahead – such as ending Trump rules that invited health care providers, employers and universities to cite religious beliefs to deny patients, workers and students access to health care; restoring religious freedom protections for vulnerable people who rely on taxpayer-funded social services; and better enforcing the Johnson Amendment to protect houses of worship from being corrupted by partisan politics.
Americans United will continue its advocacy to urge the Biden administration to address these issues. Join us to help make these goals a reality.