The Trump administration is taking yet another step towards making it easier for taxpayer-funded organizations to use religion to discriminate. On Wednesday, the US Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) issued a formal request for information to help it figure out how to remove “barriers” it claims faith-based organizations face when seeking taxpayer funding from HHS. It also asks how to “affirmatively accommodate” the religious exercise of faith-based organizations.
What HHS is really asking for, is how the agency needs to change its rules to allow religiously affiliated organizations to discriminate with government funds, against who they hire and serve and in what services they provide.
Religious freedom is a fundamental American value. It guarantees us all the right to believe, or not, as we see fit. But it doesn’t give anyone the right to use religion as an excuse to harm other people, especially when using taxpayer dollars.
HHS’s request is premised on the false notion that the agency needs to remove “barriers” that prevent faith-based organizations from working with the agency. The document itself, however, demonstrates there aren’t actually any “barriers.” First it explains that faith-based organizations have historically been a crucial partner with HHS in delivering services. Then it says that in FY 2007 alone, HHS gave at least $817 million in grants to these organizations.
The George W. Bush administration ordered a similar audit to identify all “existing barriers” it claimed faith-based organizations faced when they seek government funds to deliver social services. The ultimate result: instead of removing “barriers” (because there weren’t any), Bush removed several important church-state protections that had applied to government partnerships with faith-based organizations for decades. In fact, his new regulations took the unprecedented step of letting religious groups take government money and then discriminate in hiring on the basis of religion with that money.
So, why is the Trump administration doing Bush’s audit all over again?
Well, Trump’s Department of Justice just issued new guidance that applies to all federal agencies and offers a blueprint for using religion as an excuse to discriminate. Under the guidance’s extreme interpretations of the law, faith-based organizations could claim a right to take taxpayer money and discriminate against employees and the people they serve. And federal government workers could claim a right to use their religious beliefs as a reason to discriminate and deny services to others.
Now Trump’s HHS is looking for all the ways it can let faith-based organizations discriminate, and LGBTQ people, women, religious minorities, and others will face the most harm. As a result, organizations that partner with and get funding from HHS could allow organizations to refuse to serve LGBTQ families or single mothers, provide needed reproductive healthcare to victims of sexual assault, or counseling to interfaith couples or couples with a partner who is divorced. HHS could allow contractors or grantees to refuse to hire a qualified applicant because she uses birth control.
The current church-state protections that determine how federal agencies partner with faith-based organizations aren’t adequate enough, yet the Trump administration wants to dismantle them further. Rules like those requiring that taxpayer-funded social service providers give the people they serve access to accurate information about health care or ensuring the providers don’t discriminate in hiring are not “barriers”; they are basic requirements of partnering with the government. These rules ensure that we all have fair and equal access to taxpayer-funded services and jobs. And if religiously affiliated organizations don’t want to follow them, they don’t have to take the federal money. The government is not bound to “affirmatively accommodate” groups that seek to use taxpayer money to discriminate.
It’s true that faith-based organizations historically have played an important role in addressing many of our nation’s most pressing social needs, as a complement to government-funded programs. However, effective government collaboration with these groups does not require the sanctioning of taxpayer-funded religious discrimination or sweeping exemptions that allow these groups to deny key services to certain populations.
The Trump administration’s recent action misses the mark: Our laws should be a shield to protect religious freedom and not a sword to harm others. Our country is strongest when we are all free to believe or not, as we see fit, and to practice our faith without hurting others.