The Freedom From Religion Foundation has signaled its backing of new rules for handling of government services by faith-based providers — while suggesting how they can be further improved.
“These proposed rules largely undo the damage of the current regulations, which are hostile to true religious liberty, contribute to a dangerous mixture of religion and government, and sacrifice the well-being of service beneficiaries for no good reason,” FFRF Senior Policy Counsel Ryan Jayne writes to various federal departments in a formal comment on the Biden administration’s proposed rule changes. “We appreciate the agencies’ efforts to instead strengthen protections for nonreligious beneficiaries who object to the religious beliefs or practices of their government-funded service provider.”
The new rules will positively impact nonreligious beneficiaries in particular. Nonreligious Americans are the fastest growing segment of the U.S. population by religious identification — 35 percent of Americans are non-Christians, and this includes the more than three-in-ten adult Americans (29 percent) who now identify as religiously unaffiliated.
FFRF supports, for instance, the requirement that religious service providers give beneficiaries clear notice of their rights and assist beneficiaries in finding alternative providers when requested to do so. This requirement restores an important protection for beneficiaries and creates no substantial burden on providers. Fundamentally, this proposed rule corrects the governmental perspective by focusing primarily on the rights of beneficiaries rather than sacrificing those rights based on the religious preferences of service providers.
The proposed rule narrows the religious exemption that inexplicably allows for employment discrimination. It would be preferable to eliminate this unwarranted government-funded discrimination entirely, but the proposed rules at least move in the right direction.
However, FFRF has some recommendations on how to make things even better. “The rules could be strengthened by prohibiting employment discrimination with federal contracts and, most importantly, by providing a clear and effective enforcement mechanism for these rules,” it states in its communique to the Biden administration.
And last but not the least, the one glaring weakness of the proposed rules is the lack of an effective enforcement mechanism. FFRF regularly receives complaints from beneficiaries who are harmed by faith-based organizations contracting with the federal government. Instead of coming to a private nonprofit organization like FFRF, these beneficiaries should be made aware of a transparent complaint process, and agencies should have the ability to promptly and effectively enforce these rules against faith-based organizations that disregard them. Even the strongest beneficiary protections would be hobbled without robust enforcement.
“All in all, this is certainly a step in the right direction,” says FFRF Co-President Annie Laurie Gaylor. “However, a few changes would have improved life further for secular Americans.”
You can read the full FFRF letter here.
The Freedom From Religion Foundation is a national nonprofit organization with almost 40,000 members across the country, including members in all 50 states and the District of Columbia. FFRF works to protect the constitutional separation between state and church, and educates about nontheism.