Final joint rule from nine federal agencies removes critical religious liberty protections for beneficiaries of government services

by | Dec 18, 2020

Early this year, nine federal agencies proposed new rules designed to implement Executive Orders issued by President Donald Trump related to faith-based organizations partnering with the government. Although they purported to expand and protect First Amendment freedoms, the rules harm religious liberty by – among other things – removing safeguards for the beneficiaries of government services.

BJC expressed their concern and opposition to these proposals in public comments filed with the government, warning that “[t]he proposed regulations strip away religious freedom protections from people, often vulnerable and marginalized, who qualify for government-funded social services and are completely unnecessary to ensuring faith-based organizations can apply to be a federally funded service provider.”

This week, those agencies – which include the Departments of Justice, Agriculture, Education, Health and Human Services, Homeland Security, Housing and Urban Development, Labor, Veterans Affairs, and the Agency for International Development – issued a joint final rule, which unfortunately mirrored the proposal in cutting those key beneficiary protections, including:

  • removing the notice-and-referral requirements that provided beneficiaries with information about an alternate provider if they object to receiving secular services from a faith-based provider.
  • removing requirements that faith-based organizations receiving federal money must provide clear, written notice to the people receiving services of their individual rights, including that they cannot be discriminated against based on belief or no belief, cannot be required to attend or participate in any explicitly religious activity or event, and — if they object to the religious character of the organization — referral to an alternative provider.
  • removing the requirements that indirect aid programs have “at least one adequate secular option for the use of the voucher, certificate, or other similar means of government-funded payment.”
  • adds language that allows faith-based organizations that accept “indirect” aid the ability to require beneficiaries to participate in religious activities.

These changes – in the last days of an outgoing administration – will have real consequences of unnecessary harm. Americans should not have to choose between receiving essential government services that are paid for by the taxpayer and remaining true to their conscience on matters of faith. Removing safeguards that protect a person’s right to refuse religious engagement does no favors to the cause of religious liberty and faith freedom for all.