June 2024 Church & State Magazine - June 2024

Groups drop lawsuit in light of Biden administration rule changes


Multi-racial volunteers standing in a line at a table ready to serve homeless people with a hot meal, wearing matching t-shirts, protective aprons and gloves for hygiene

Everyone welcome: Biden rules curb unwanted proselytism in aid programs (Getty Images)

Plaintiffs challenging Trump-era rules that weakened protections against religious proselytization and coercion in the delivery of federally funded social services announced May 3 that they are dismissing their case, MAZON: A Jewish Response to Hunger v. HHS, pointing to new rules recently published by the Biden administration that restore religious-freedom safeguards for people who use federally funded services such as food banks, homeless and domestic violence shelters, job training, and elder care.

“This is a victory for religious freedom and the millions of often vulnerable and marginalized people who use government-funded social services. Our constitutional promise of church-state separation means that no one should have to give up their religious freedom in order to access critical services,” said Rachel Laser, president and CEO of Americans United. 

Laser added, “No one should ever be pressured to participate in religious activities or be required to meet a religious litmus test in exchange for the help they need. We applaud the Biden administration for restoring these protections. While there is more work to be done, these are important steps on the path toward a country that promises freedom without favor and equality without exception.”

The Biden administration rules, which took effect at the beginning of April, replace Trump administration policies that stripped away religious freedom protections from people who use government-funded social services. Importantly, the new regulations reinstate the requirement that people seeking services be informed of their religious freedom rights, which include that they can’t be discriminated against because of their religion or because they are nonreligious; they can’t be required to pray or participate in religious activities; and they can file a complaint if their rights are violated.

The new rules also reinstate safeguards that ensure that people who obtain social services through vouchers are not forced to attend or participate in religious activities. The Biden rules additionally eliminate Trump-era provisions that were designed to allow social service providers to refuse to provide key services and that were intended to open the door to discrimination in taxpayer-funded programs.

On Jan. 19, 2021, Americans United partnered with Democracy Forward and Lambda Legal to file a lawsuit challenging the Trump regulations. The lawsuit alleged that in putting forth the harmful regulations, the Trump administration provided no reasonable explanation for the rule change, failed to account for its harms and failed to consider obvious alternatives to the changes — all in violation of the Administrative Procedure Act. Litigation had been on hold while the Biden administration finalized its new rules, and the case is now being dropped by the plaintiffs.

AU’s allies hailed the move.

“Democracy Forward applauds the Biden Administration’s new rules, which restore protections from religious discrimination and make it easier for people and communities to access essential social services,” Skye Perryman, president and CEO of Democracy Forward, stated. “Religious freedom is a cornerstone of our democracy, and these new rules are vital in correcting the injustices from the final days of the Trump administration. The hard work of all of our partners in this lawsuit helped bring about this necessary and meaningful change in policy.”

Freedom From Religion Foundation Co-President Annie Laurie Gaylor said, “These new rules will greatly help improve life further for secular Americans. They are a win for true religious liberty!”

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