New York, N.Y. — Today, a coalition of service and advocacy groups filed suit against the Trump administration for rolling back religious freedom protections that required faith-based organizations providing critical, taxpayer-funded services (like food and shelter) to inform recipients of their legal rights to be free from discrimination, not to have to attend religious programming, and to have the opportunity to get a referral for an alternative provider. The unlawful rule, effective today, 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.
Today’s lawsuit was filed by a group of plaintiffs: 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. Filed against the Trump-led Departments of Health and Human Services, Agriculture, Housing and Urban Development, Veterans Affairs, Education, Homeland Security, Justice, and Labor, the suit seeks to reverse the unlawful rollback of these important protections. Americans United for Separation of Church and State, Democracy Forward, and Lambda Legal represent the plaintiffs.
“When providing social services, our federal government’s top priority should be to ensure that vulnerable people get the help they need without sacrificing their religious freedom or civil rights,” said Rachel Laser, president and CEO of Americans United. “The Trump administration’s unlawful rules do the opposite – they strip critical protections from people who rely on social services and force people to choose between obtaining services they desperately need and remaining true to their personal religious beliefs and identities. Religious freedom should never be misused to permit discrimination or create barriers for people seeking taxpayer-funded services. We urge the court to invalidate these rules, and the Biden-Harris administration to promptly revoke them.”
Upon filing the suit, the groups issued the following statement:
“On its last day in power, the Trump administration shredded important religious freedom and nondiscrimination protections for many of America’s most vulnerable populations and made it harder for them to access taxpayer-funded services in the midst of a pandemic and severe economic downturn.
“The outgoing administration’s new rule unlawfully curtails the religious freedom and nondiscriminatory access to services of people seeking to obtain food, shelter, and other essential, federally funded services from faith-based organizations. The Trump administration’s last-minute rule abandons common-sense and widely agreed-upon requirements of religious organizations receiving taxpayer funding to provide these services for the general public.
“Thanks to the Trump administration’s rollback, faith-based organizations no longer have to inform recipients of taxpayer-funded services that they cannot be discriminated against or be forced to attend religious activities when accessing services. Without this much-needed information, already-vulnerable populations are likely to fear discrimination, needlessly opt to take part in religious activities that contradict their own beliefs or demean their identities, or forgo assistance altogether.
“We’re taking our fight against the Trump administration’s unlawful rollback to court so that those in need of help can continue to get it without fear of discrimination or unwanted proselytization.”
On Dec. 17, the Trump administration finalized its sweeping rule, which is effective today and eliminates common-sense requirements that were put in place in 2016. Those requirements were the result of a historic effort to reach consensus on how religion and government should interact in the context of federally funded social services. The Trump administration’s rollback unlawfully 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 rollback has sweeping effects. Without the notice and referral requirements:
- A transgender teen experiencing homelessness might — out of fear of discrimination — avoid a federally funded shelter associated with a religion that condemns LGBTQ people;
- A hungry family would have no reason to know they have no obligation to join in prayer or say grace in order to receive food from a church program supported with tax dollars;
- A 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;
- Older Americans who don’t know their rights might participate in religious services that are contrary to their own beliefs and disparage their LGBTQ identity because they fear they could lose access to federally funded long-term care services if they do not.
Unfortunately, illegal discrimination against service recipients does occur. For instance, a 2020 survey of LGBTQ people experiencing food insecurity found that, while many experiences at faith-based providers were positive, a substantial percentage were not. In the face of this rejection, many decided to forgo the needed food. The Trump administration’s elimination of these common-sense, “know-your-rights” requirements deprives vulnerable populations of the information they need to fight discrimination.
The Trump administration’s rollback is arbitrary and capricious. Among other things, it 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.
The lawsuit was filed on Jan. 19 in the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of New York. Read it in full here.
For all press contacts and more on the plaintiffs, click here.
Americans United is a religious freedom advocacy organization based in Washington, D.C. Founded in 1947, AU educates Americans about the importance of church-state separation in safeguarding religious freedom.