A coalition of service and advocacy organizations have filed suit against the Trump administration for rolling back civil rights protections for beneficiaries of federal programs.
The prior federal rules had 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 new rule, effective yesterday, Jan. 19, makes it harder for already marginalized populations to access essential social services as the United States continues to reel from a historic pandemic and economic collapse.
The 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. Democracy Forward, Americans United for Separation of Church and State and Lambda Legal represent the plaintiffs.
“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 groups say in a joint statement. “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 organizations add, “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.”
The Freedom From Religion Foundation felt an urgent necessity to join in the lawsuit.
“The Trump administration’s perversion of religious freedom continued till, literally, its last day,” says FFRF Co-President Annie Laurie Gaylor. “We’re determined to ensure that individuals not believing in the majority creed know their rights and are empowered to protect themselves against discrimination and marginalization while receiving vital social services.”
On Dec. 17, the Trump administration finalized its sweeping rule, which became effective on Jan. 19 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.
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.
As a result of the 2020 rule, FFRF plans to spend additional time and resources educating beneficiaries and providers who take part in social service programs about the rights of participants. One of the ways FFRF is doing that is by distributing “know-your-rights” material for program participants.
FFRF is also planning to conduct an education campaign directed at faith-based entities that receive federal financial assistance to remind them of the remaining nondiscrimination requirements under the new Trump rules. FFRF further plans to launch an education campaign aimed at secular organizations that serve vulnerable populations in order to enable those groups to support the people they serve in advocating for themselves when receiving services from faith-based organizations.
FFRF has in the past pursued complaints about faith-based organizations receiving federal financial assistance. It has received such complaints regarding USDA funding for child nutrition programs, HHS funding through various funding streams, including Social Security block grants funding for senior centers, early childhood intervention funding and Older Americans Act funding.
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.