(AP Photo/Kathy Willens)
In a last-minute flurry before Inauguration Day, the Trump administration gutted nondiscrimination requirements across multiple federal agencies for beneficiaries of taxpayer-funded services from faith-based organizations. The unlawful rule rolls back religious freedom protections that required faith-based organizations providing critical, taxpayer-funded services to inform recipients of their legal rights not to face discrimination, not to have to attend religious programming, and to have the opportunity to get a referral for an alternative provider.
It undoes an agreed-upon balancing of interests set forth in a 2016 rule, which followed a historic effort to reach consensus on common-sense requirements for religion and government in the context of federally-funded social services. Prior to the 2020 Rule, faith-based providers were required to affirmatively notify beneficiaries of their nondiscrimination rights, informing them that access to an organization’s services — anything from shelter, food assistance, job training, education, child welfare or elder care — could not be based on religion, religious belief, or attendance in religious programming.
Eliminating protections from religious discrimination only makes it harder for already-marginalized populations to access essential social services as the U.S. continues to reel from a historic pandemic and economic collapse. Vulnerable individuals most in need of federally funded services to provide for their basic needs may choose to forgo assistance altogether fearing religious discrimination or coercion. They may not seek alternative providers without a referral from the faith-based organization, or they may acquiesce to attending religious programming that they believe is required.
A transgender teen may choose to sleep on the streets instead of in a shelter that condemns them. A Bhutanese Hindu refugee would likely be unaware that they can turn down an invitation to join a bible study group and still receive federally-funded job training services. An older American who doesn’t know their rights might participate in religious services that are contrary to their own beliefs because they believe they could lose access to federally-funded long-term care services if they do not.
And a family confronting hunger — a reality for many during this extended pandemic — would have no reason to know the food they’re receiving from a church is supported with tax dollars and that they have no obligation to join in prayer or say grace.
The elimination of these protections puts the interests of religious organizations, which provide a significant slice of federally funded social services, ahead of the rights and needs of the vulnerable populations they serve.
The Trump administration’s action is arbitrary and capricious. We filed suit to reverse the unlawful rollback of these important protections. The agencies that issued this rule provided no reasonable explanation for the rule change, failed to account for its harms, and failed to consider obvious alternatives to the changes they finalized, all in violation of the Administrative Procedure Act.
We’re representing MAZON: A Jewish Response to Hunger, SAGE, the New York City Anti-Violence Project, Ark of Freedom Alliance, Freedom From Religion Foundation, American Atheists, and the Hindu American Foundation alongside Americans United for Separation of Church and State and Lambda Legal.
The lawsuit was filed on January 19 in the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of New York against the Trump-led Departments of Health and Human Services, Agriculture, Housing and Urban Development, Veterans Affairs, Education, Homeland Security, Justice, and Labor.