By BJC Staff Reports

After years of work, there are now new regulations for partnerships between the government and faith-based social service providers, improving religious liberty protections for providers and beneficiaries.

On March 31, the White House released the final rules for nine agencies, which take effect at the end of April. The more than 300 pages of rules represent the resolution of a complex administrative process.

The regulations are very similar to the proposed ones released in August, strengthening partnerships between the federal government and religious organizations providing services for those in need. In October, the BJC worked with a broad coalition of dozens of organizations to submit comments on the proposals, suggesting clarifications and improvements for consistency among agencies.

The story of these regulations began with “charitable choice,” a legislative provision inserted into a handful of social services laws in the 1990s that affected financial partnerships between the federal government and religiously affiliated organizations. In 2001, President George W. Bush emphasized the importance of these partnerships through his faith-based initiatives, instituting regulatory changes aimed at protecting the religious character of providers and creating faith-based offices throughout the government. Building on these developments, President Barack Obama created a bipartisan advisory council and task force to shore up the legal footing for what he re-named the White House Office of Faith-based and Neighborhood Partnerships.

The advisory council’s consensus recommendations formed the basis for President Obama’s executive order in November 2010, which established important guidelines for partnerships between the federal government and faith-based social service providers. And now, these agencies have released the final rules to implement that order.

The new regulations clarify some terms — for example, they prohibit government funding of “explicitly religious activities” in order to prevent government funding of religion. This is a change from the prohibition on the vaguely worded “inherently religious activities” description in some earlier regulations. The regulatory changes clarify that religious activities must be offered at a different time or in a different location from any federally funded programming.

The rules also require faith-based organizations receiving federal money to 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 — the social service provider will refer the beneficiary to an alternative provider.

Other improvements include requiring agencies to ensure all decisions about federal financial assistance are based solely on merit. The rules make clear that faith-based organizations are eligible to participate in federally funded social service programs, and such organizations are prohibited from discriminating against those they serve (including the denial of services) based on an individual’s religious belief or practice.

“These regulations build on widespread agreement that we can and should do more to protect the religious liberty of beneficiaries and provide greater clarity and transparency about applicable church-state rules,” wrote Melissa Rogers, executive director of the White House Office of Faith-based and Neighborhood Partnerships, in a blog post. “These reforms will strengthen partnerships that serve people in need, and we commend the agencies for working together to issue these final regulations.”


From the April 2016 edition of Report from the Capital. Click here to view the issue as a PDF document.