9 Federal Agencies Issue Rule to Protect Equal Participation of Faith-Based Orgs in Govt. Programs

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WASHINGTON — In light of an executive order issued by President Trump two years ago, nine government agencies — including the Department of Health and Human Services, the Department of Justice, the Department of Labor, and the Department of Veterans Affairs — have released a rule that aims to strengthen protections for the equal rights of faith-based organizations to participate in government programs.

“Faith-based and community organizations have tremendous ability to serve individuals, families, and communities through means that are different from those of government and with capacity that often exceeds that of government,” Trump wrote in Executive Order 13831, signed on the National Day of Prayer in 2018. “These organizations lift people up, keep families strong, and solve problems at the local level.”

“The executive branch wants faith-based and community organizations, to the fullest opportunity permitted by law, to compete on a level playing field for grants, contracts, programs, and other federal funding opportunities,” the order outlined. “The efforts of faith-based and community organizations are essential to revitalizing communities, and the federal government welcomes opportunities to partner with such organizations through innovative, measurable, and outcome-driven initiatives.”

The year prior, Trump issued a similar order that directed the attorney general to provide guidance on religious liberty protections in federal law.

The Department of Justice consequently released a memo in October 2017, noting that organizations do not forfeit their rights when providing government-funded charity work and stating that “government may not exclude religious organizations as such from secular aid programs . . . when the aid is not being used for explicitly religious activities such as worship or proselytization.”

As a result of the orders and memo, along with the 2017 Supreme Court ruling of Trinity Lutheran Church of Columbia v. Comer, nine departments throughout the Trump administration have worked on conforming to the guidance, proposing amendments ensuring that faith-based groups are not discriminated against or required to “provide assurances or notices where similar requirements are not imposed on secular organizations.”

The president had repealed a previous requirement under the Obama administration that required religious groups to report referrals but did not impose the same mandate on secular entities.

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The departments have also concluded that faith-based grantees do not need to conceal their religious nature in order to be grantee but “shall retain their autonomy, right of expression, religious character, and independence.”

The new regulations, set to take effect in January 2021, update prohibitions on the government from “discriminating in selecting and disqualifying an organization, so as to prohibit such conduct on the basis of religious character and affiliation,” and note that “federal laws provide religious freedom ‘and conscience’ protections.”

Read the rule as published in the Federal Register here.

“Faith-based organizations, Americans of faith, and civil society organizations play a vital role in providing Americans with access to healthcare and human services,” HHS Secretary Alex Azar said in a statement. “This new rule reflects the commitment President Trump has upheld during his time in office to protect the religious freedom and conscience rights of all Americans, including those who receive support from federal programs to do their good work.”

The religious liberties organization Alliance Defending Freedom (ADF), which had submitted comment to four of the agencies in support of the updated eligibility protections, applauded the development.

“The American people lose when the government decides which beliefs should prevail. Instead, the federal government should treat religious Americans and organizations on an equal playing field with their secular neighbors,” Senior Counsel Zack Pruitt said in a statement.

“That’s why we commend the administration and its agencies for finalized rules that emphasize the federal government’s commitment to respect and protect the free exercise of religion and the freedom of speech all Americans have under the Constitution.”

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