The Freedom From Religion Foundation is part of a coalition that is urging the Biden administration to implement new regulations for funding of faith groups.
The Coalition Against Religious Discrimination was formed in the 1990s to monitor legislative and regulatory changes affecting government partnerships with religious and other nonprofit social service providers, and, in particular, to oppose government-funded religious discrimination. The American Civil Liberties Union, American Humanist Association, Americans United for Separation of Church and State, Center For Inquiry and People For the American Way are some of the other members. Faith-based organizations should not be allowed to take government funds and then place religious litmus tests on whom they hire, whom they serve, or which of the required services they will provide, the coalition asserts in a recent letter to the Biden administration.
“The Trump administration-instituted rules make it harder for people to get the services they need and undermine the effectiveness of government-funded programs,” the letter states. “That’s why the coalition is urging the Biden administration to restore critical protections for program participants and to make certain that the regulations adhere to longstanding religious freedom principles.”
For instance, giving participants notice of their rights is critical to protecting their religious freedom. Ensuring participants can request an alternative provider is also essential, the coalition advises. And forcing program participants, who often are in a vulnerable position, to find an alternative provider on their own is likely to prevent them from getting help at all. The responsibility for implementing the alternative provider requirement should shift from the provider, where it fell under the Obama regulations, to the government.
And, the coalition urges, because people retain fewer religious freedom protections in voucher programs, agencies should use vouchers only sparingly and must ensure that voucher programs abide by constitutional requirements. Where people can choose to use a voucher, there must be a secular option available.
Remove references to religious exemptions that harm program participants, the coalition insists. Exemptions for service providers are likely to undermine the effectiveness of taxpayer-funded services and come at a cost that likely will be borne by program participants. This is especially true when exemptions could lead to participants being denied services.
The Biden administration needs to adopt a thorough process for complaints and robust procedures for monitoring, enforcement and training, the coalition is asking. Protections for program participants lack meaning if the government does not enforce them.
Accordingly, agencies should create a robust complaint process for program participants who allege that their religious freedom rights have been violated. At the same time, agencies should designate one central place to accept and record complaints and delegate authority to it to investigate and report on the complaints.
“The new regulations should add clarity to the provisions on funding decisions to aid applicants for funding and agency officials,” states the letter. “Currently, the regulations state that funding decisions must be free from political interference and made on the basis of merit, not religion or religious belief. We suggest adding language stating that merit-based funding decisions must include objective consideration of whether an organization will serve all program participants and perform all services that are necessary to fulfill the program’s objectives.”
Last but not the least, there should be an end to federally funded employment discrimination.
“Effective government partnership with faith-based groups does not require the sanctioning of federally funded discrimination,” ends the letter. “Government-funded employers should not be allowed to impose a religious test on their applicants or employees — no one should be disqualified from a taxpayer-funded job because they belong to the ‘wrong’ religion.”
The Freedom From Religion Foundation, based in Madison, Wis., a 501(c)(3) nonprofit educational charity, is the nation’s largest association of freethinkers (atheists, agnostics), and has been working since 1978 to keep religion and government separate.