FFRF halts Social Security pro-baptism practice

The Social Security Administration, following complaints by the Freedom From Religion Foundation, has halted a mandatory baptismal question previously asked of all applicants seeking benefits.

In 2008, FFRF received a complaint from one of its members who had applied for benefits at his local Social Security Administration office. Despite the fact that he had produced a birth certificate as proof of age, he was next asked the following question: “Was a religious record of your birth made before you were age 5?” When he and his wife objected to answering this invasive question, they were told the application process could not continue until they answered it.

Regulation 404.716 of the Social Security Act asks for documents proving a person’s age based on date of birth. The Act specifies a “birth certificate or hospital birth record established before age 5” or “a religious record that shows the applicant’s date of birth and was established before age 5.”

Attorney James. A Friedman, on FFRF’s behalf, wrote the Administration that FFRF “understands that, under certain circumstances, an applicant may need to rely on a religious record to prove their date of birth. It is not necessary, however, to ask that constitutionally suspect question of all applications.” FFRF sensibly asked the Administration to immediately exclude the baptism question for applicants who had already provided a birth certificate.

In a reply in May 2008, the Administration insisted that the question, “Was a religious record of your birth made before you were age 5?” was a “mandatory field that our employees must complete to process the application. This question is no more invasive than asking for a birth certificate.”

In his follow-up letter, Friedman pointed out, “First, it is simply not necessary to ask that question of an applicant who presents the preferred evidence of age. The question on the application concerning religious records appears to favor religious applicants over non-religious and applicants of certain religious faiths who create such records over others who do not. Finally, the application question unnecessarily invades the privacy interests of applicants, forcing them to divulge information about their and their family’s personal religious beliefs or lack of beliefs.”

Staff Attorney Rebecca Markert renewed FFRF’s complaint this June. On Sept. 28, 2011, an official with the Social Security Administration responded in writing:

“In light of your concerns, we agree that if an applicant has furnished an acceptable public record of birth, it is not necessary to ask whether he or she also has a religious record of age established before age five. Therefore, we will change our policy instructions so interviewers do not ask for a religious record of age in these situations.”

“It shouldn’t have taken five years for the Social Security Administration to accede to FFRF’s simple request,” noted FFRF Co-President Annie Laurie Gaylor, “but we are pleased with this response. However, we would appreciate it if those who are applying for benefits monitor the situation. Please contact FFRF immediately if you produced a birth certificate, but are still asked whether you have baptismal records.”

Freedom From Religion Foundation

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