Aug 05, 2015

Proposed regulations released today by nine federal agencies will bring about necessary reforms to the rules that apply to partnerships between the government and faith-based social-services providers, Americans United for Separation of Church and State says.

The regulations are the culmination of years of work by religious freedom advocates and efforts over the last seven years by the Obama administration to reform the “faith-based” initiative, which was adopted by the George W. Bush administration. They will implement the key religious-liberty protections in President Barack Obama’s Executive Order 13559 from 2010. The regulations are generally in line with that executive order.

“When you decide to apply for government funds to deliver social services, there are strings attached,” said the Rev. Barry W. Lynn, executive director of Americans United. “These proposed regulations should go a long way toward ensuring that taxpayer-funded organizations abide by the Constitution. By doing so, the regulations will ensure those who seek services won’t be kicked out of a homeless shelter or a drug treatment class because they don’t want to pray or listen to preaching.”

Americans United believes the regulations will provide improved religious-freedom protections for the beneficiaries of social-services programs, greater clarity to faith-based social service providers about their responsibilities and increased transparency to the taxpayer. All three are important steps toward ensuring that the First Amendment is respected when the U.S. government partners with religiously affiliated organizations.

The most significant changes in these proposed regulations are the religious-liberty protections for beneficiaries of social-service programs. Under the proposal, for example, those receiving social services must be given written notice of their religious-liberty rights not to be discriminated against in taxpayer-funded programs on the basis of religion, a religious belief, a refusal to hold a religious belief or a refusal to attend or participate in a religious practice. 

Lynn, who was part of a diverse task force that offered advice to the White House on how it should reform the rules that apply to these government partnerships, added that he is pleased the group’s recommendations were adopted and said he hopes there will be widespread support for these new religious-liberty protections.

While the proposed regulations are an improvement, they do not solve all the problems associated with the rules that govern the partnerships between government and faith-based social service providers. In particular, the Obama administration decided not to address the issues of federally funded religious hiring discrimination in the executive order or these proposed regulations. Therefore, the Obama administration still enforces Bush administration rules allowing faith-based organizations that get government grants and contracts to provide social services to reject qualified job applicants on religious grounds to work in those taxpayer-funded programs.

“We look forward to reviewing the proposed regulations thoroughly and providing comments on them,” said Americans United Legislative Director Maggie Garrett.  “We anticipate the regulations will faithfully implement the Executive Order.  And by doing so, they will surely improve President Obama’s religious-liberty record.”