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Nine federal agencies have proposed restoring religious liberty protections that were rescinded during the Trump administration, according to a press release from the Department of Health and Human Services. It’s a long-awaited step in the right direction from the Biden administration and corrects a host of unnecessary and cruel restrictions that allowed groups to get away with religious discrimination.

In December of 2020, after the election but while Trump was still in power, those nine agencies loosened restrictions that made sure religious groups receiving taxpayer money to provide social services didn’t shove their religion in the faces of the people they were supposed to be helping.

Specifically:

  • Faith-based service providers no longer had to refer clients elsewhere if they were uncomfortable with the group’s religious affiliation.
  • Clients no longer had to be told about their religious freedom rights, or that they didn’t have to participate in any religious activities (like prayer), or that they were entitled to go to an alternative service provider, or that they could file a complaint if necessary.
  • There were no longer any requirements for secular social service providers to be offered as options whenever religious ones were available.

As American Atheists explained at the time, “The unlawful rule… makes it harder for already marginalized populations to access essential social services as the U.S. continues to reel from a historic pandemic and economic collapse.”

AA and a coalition of civil rights groups including the Freedom From Religion Foundation and Americans United for Separation of Church and State sued the Trump administration over all this. Their lawsuit claimed the rules were arbitrary and never justified. They had a point. It’s not like the administration offered any rationale for changing those rules, suggesting it was simply an overture to the most bigoted members of the Republican Party’s base. They also never publicly accounted for the harm this change would cause, or considered any other alternatives, violating the law.

Now the Biden administration is finally doing away with all that by reversing those changes. None of this will change the fact that religious service providers receiving taxpayer money will still be able to discriminate if their faith calls for it, but it will restore those basic protections to remind people receiving the benefits that they don’t have to leave their religious beliefs (or lack thereof) at the door in order to receive the government’s help.

For now, the reversal is just a proposal. It’s a necessary step before a policy change, giving the public time to weigh in. You can fully expect conservative groups to call this a new form of religious discrimination, but that would be a lie. It’s just a return to the status quo that existed before Trump’s band of Christian Nationalists decided to turn federal agencies into arms of their preferred religion.

The United States Departments of Health and Human Services, Agriculture, Education, Homeland Security, Housing and Urban Development, Justice, Labor, and Veterans Affairs and the United States Agency for International Development are proposing this new rule…

“Today’s announcement builds a whole-of-government approach in social services to ensure nondiscrimination on the basis of religion,” said U.S. Health and Human Services Secretary Xavier Becerra. “These proposed rules would provide important protections for Americans who rely on federally funded social service programs.”

The groups that filed the earlier lawsuit are celebrating this move:

“The Biden Administration’s actions today are a vital step toward protecting the rights of millions of Americans who receive lifesaving, taxpayer-funded social services from religious providers,” said Nick Fish, president of American Atheists. “No person in need should be pressured to participate in religious activities in order to access basic, taxpayer-funded services, to which they are entitled. Religion must never be used as an excuse to turn people away or deny them their rights.”


“Our constituents submitted almost 25,000 comments opposing the changes initiated by the Trump Administration, so we are pleased that the Biden Administration is restoring these critical protections,” said Alison Gill, vice president of legal and policy at American Atheists. “Our community and the overwhelming majority of the American people are united in the belief that religion cannot be used to justify discrimination or deny services, especially from vulnerable people who are just trying to get by.”

“There is still more work to be done, but this is progress toward fulfilling our nation’s promise of equality under the law regardless of one’s religious or nonreligious beliefs,” added Gill.

[Americans United for Separation of Church and State President and CEO Rachel Laser:] “Religious freedom is a foundational American principle. No one should have to give up their religious freedom in order to get critical services. No one should ever be pressured to participate in religious activities or be required to meet a religious litmus test in exchange for the help they need.

These proposed regulations are an important step toward protecting religious freedom for all. When the government funds vital services, it must ensure these programs are open to people of all faiths and the nonreligious and that religion is not being misused to deny people services or their civil rights.”

This is such a common sense step. It doesn’t get in the way of anyone’s religious freedoms. It just reminds citizens that their identity and religious beliefs have no impact on the help they can receive. Christian Nationalists eagerly prevented that under the previous administration. Their desire to fund religious discrimination with federal dollars needed to be blocked, and now, thanks to the Biden administration, it soon will be.

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Hemant Mehta is the founder of FriendlyAtheist.com, a YouTube creator, podcast co-host, and author of multiple books about atheism. He can be reached at @HemantMehta.