Labor Department issues new guidance ensuring religious organizations’ access to federal grants, includes some church-state protections

by | Jun 13, 2020

While the coronavirus pandemic and the ongoing protests for racial justice dominate the news, as they should, the agencies of the federal government continue to operate. Last month, the U.S. Labor Department (DOL) released new guidelines, as directed by the Office of Management and Budget, regarding religious organizations and federal grants. The guidelines are intended to implement then-Attorney General Jeff Session’ 2017 Memorandum interpreting religious liberty protections in federal law.

The new guidelines state that “religious organizations are eligible, on the same basis as any other organization, to seek DOL support, or participate in DOL programs for which they are otherwise eligible.” The department does, however, offer some protections against religious entanglements with government funds, including the following provisions:

  • “DOL, DOL social service providers, and State and local governments administering DOL support must not discriminate against a program beneficiary or prospective program beneficiary on the basis of religion, religious belief, a refusal to hold a religious belief, or a refusal to attend or participate in a religious practice.” 
  • “DOL, DOL social service providers, and State and local governments administering DOL support must ensure that no direct DOL financial assistance is used for explicitly religious activities.”
  • “If an organization conducts explicitly religious activities using non-DOL funds and also offers social service programs using direct DOL support, then that organization must offer the explicitly religious activities at a time or in a place that is separate from the programs receiving direct DOL support.”
  • “The organization must also ensure that participation in any explicitly religious activities is purely voluntary, and not compulsory, for beneficiaries of these DOL-supported programs.”

While there were some changes included in this guidance, it is largely a restatement of policies from the Obama administration and does not incorporate the troubling language and interpretations that we have seen in some of the proposed DOL regulations. A Labor Department news release on the guidance is here.