When President George W. Bush took office, his administration set about to change the rules for how the federal government funds faith-based organizations to perform social services, like running soup kitchens, job training programs and homeless shelters. He established the White House Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives, which worked with agencies across the federal government to weaken the longstanding church-state protections that had applied to these programs. Unfortunately for religious freedom, the effort was successful and almost every social service program funded by the government was subject to these new, lax rules.
We were disappointed when the President Barack Obama decided to maintain this office (albeit with a different name), but we were optimistic after he promised to reform the Bush-era regulations and improve their “constitutional footing.” That was 2009. Since then:
- The President signed an executive order that created a Presidential Advisory Council to recommend reforms.
- The Advisory Council appointed a Task Force to craft the recommendations (AU’s Barry Lynn was a member of the Task Force).
- The Advisory Council reported these recommendations to the President.
- The President signed a second Executive Order adopting many of the Advisory Council’s recommendations and creating an Interagency Working Group to propose how agencies should implement the Executive Order.
- The Working Group issued a report.
- The President appointed a new Executive Director for the White House Office who had served as the chair of the Advisory Council and was committed to finishing the process.
- The Office of Management and Budget issued a report, reconvening the Working Group to do more work.
And finally, after six years and hundreds of hours of advocacy from AU and our allies, the aministration has finally proposed new rules to fix many – although surely not all – of the problems with the existing regulations.
Yesterday, Americans United filed formal comments to all nine proposed regulations. As chair of the Coalition Against Religious Discrimination, we organized comments on behalf of 30 other member organizations. We also submitted comments on behalf of Americans United, discussing Barry’s role on the Task Force that helped the Council develop the reform recommendations.
The new agency rules would implement many key religious liberty protections, including most importantly, for those who benefit from the government-funded social services. These include regulations that:
- Prohibit organizations from discriminating against those seeking government services because of their religious beliefs or lack of religious beliefs;
- Clarify that organizations cannot include explicitly religious activities in their federally funded programs;
- Require organizations to inform social service beneficiaries of their rights; and
- Call on social service providers to refer beneficiaries to alternative providers if they object to the providers’ religious character.
All of these changes are positive and are what we’ve long advocated for. Thus, our comments express support for these regulations and the agencies’ work. Yet, we also suggest many ways in which the administration could strengthen the rules they are proposing.
The regulations also have one glaring omission: they do nothing to end the Bush-era hiring policies that allow faith-based organizations to take taxpayer money to perform social services and discriminate in hiring with those same dollars. When running for president, then-Senator Obama promised to end this Bush hiring policy. Yet, as president, he took the issue of ending this harmful policy off the table for this reform process. As a result, the administration still sanctions taxpayer-funded employment discrimination.
In August, we, along with 129 other national organizations, signed a letter asking the president to take steps to end the policy that permits such hiring discrimination. We will, of course, continue to persistently advocate against this.
In the meantime, we thank the agencies for their work on these reforms and look forward to when the new rules with their critical religious liberty protections will finally be in place.