Nine federal agencies published a final rule aimed at protecting the religious liberty of faith-based organizations and the people they serve.
The new regulations from the rule, jointly published in the Federal Register by the departments of Education, Homeland Security, Agriculture, Housing and Urban Development, Justice, Labor, Veterans Affairs, Health and Human Services, and the U.S. Agency for International Development, will also add new protections that would allow religious providers of social services to compete on equal footing with private providers for government funds.
They will become effective 30 days after publication in the Federal Register. Recipients of federal funds, however, will have until 90 days after publication in the Federal Register to satisfy the new obligations in the final regulations.
In explaining how the new regulations will work, the USDA noted for example, that a beneficiary who participates in The Emergency Food Assistance Program (TEFAP), or any other USDA service offered by a faith-based organization, must be notified in writing that he or she cannot be discriminated against based on religion, cannot be required to attend or participate in any privately funded religious activities that are offered separate from the federally funded program, and may request an alternative provider, if the beneficiary objects to the religious character of the organization.
The new protections also require that all decisions about federal financial assistance be based solely on merit, without regard to an organization's religious affiliation or lack thereof according to the USDA.
"Here at USDA, we are grateful for partnerships that help us serve Americans in their time of need. Today's regulations not only protect the religious liberties of USDA customers, but also reflect the concerns of our community and faith-based partners," Norah Deluhery, director of faith-based and neighborhood partnerships at USDA said in a statement Thursday. "Faith-based organizations support the delivery of critical safety nets that improve quality of life for many. Today's reforms will strengthen these services while reflecting the constitutional principles that define our nation."
The regulations represent the culmination of a process started by President Barack Obama in 2009 when he appointed a diverse Advisory Council for Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships, according to Melissa Rogers, executive director of the White House Office of Faith-based and Neighborhood Partnerships. Council members were asked to make recommendations for strengthening the social service partnerships the Government forms with nongovernmental providers, including strengthening the constitutional and legal footing of these partnerships.
The final rule regulations highlighted by the White House, sets forth changes to current regulations, including changes that:
- Require agencies to ensure that all decisions about Federal financial assistance are based solely on merit, without regard to an organization's religious affiliation or lack thereof, and free from political interference, or the appearance of such interference.
- Make clear that faith-based organizations are eligible to participate in federally funded social service programs on the same basis as any other private organization.
- Clarify what activities can and cannot be supported with direct Federal financial assistance by replacing use of the term "inherently religious activities" with the term "explicitly religious activities" and providing examples of such activities.
- Prohibit organizations that receive Federal financial assistance from discriminating against beneficiaries, including denying services or benefits, based on religion, a religious belief, a refusal to hold a religious belief, or a refusal to attend or participate in a religious practice.
- Require faith-based organizations that receive direct Federal financial assistance for domestic social service programs to provide written notice of certain protections to beneficiaries of the program. Specifically, an organization that receives direct Federal financial assistance is required to give notice to beneficiaries that-
- The organization may not discriminate against a beneficiary based on religion, a religious belief, a refusal to hold a religious belief, or a refusal to attend or participate in a religious practice;
- The organization may not require a beneficiary to attend or participate in any explicitly religious activities that are offered by the organization, and any participation by the beneficiaries in those activities must be purely voluntary;
- The organization must separate in time or location any privately funded explicitly religious activities from activities supported by direct Federal financial assistance;
- If a beneficiary or prospective beneficiary objects to the religious character of the organization, the organization will undertake reasonable efforts to identify and refer the beneficiary to an alternative provider to which the beneficiary does not object; and
- A beneficiary or prospective beneficiary may report violations of these protections, including any denials of services or benefits, to the Federal agency or intermediary administering the program.
Stanley Carlson-Theis, senior director of the Institutional Religious Freedom Alliance, praised the new rules in an response to The Christian Post.
"Faith-based organizations, such as Christian service organizations, whether or not they receive federal funds, should be thankful for the faith-based regulations the Obama administration has just announced," he said.
"The regulations are modifications of the George W. Bush-era 'equal treatment' regulations, which in turn were inspired by the Charitable Choice provisions that Congress added to the welfare program and some other programs and that President Clinton signed into law.
"The regulations require government officials to be biased neither against nor in favor of religious organizations that apply for funding to offer services, explicitly protect the religious character of religious organizations that receive federal dollars, and protect the religious freedom rights of people seeking help. This is the third administration — two Democratic and one Republican — that has taken specific initiatives to ensure that faith-based organizations can be partners with the federal government to serve people in need."