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Before exiting, Team Trump takes aim at church-state policy

Trump's change to faith-based social services is likely to affect a lot people -- all of whom are vulnerable, many of whom lack political capital.
Image: Easter morning with the sun behind a church steepl cross.
A wood cross on an old church steeple backlighted by a rising sun. Some copy space.wwing / Getty Images

The news got buried this week under an avalanche of higher-profile news, but the Associated Press reported on Monday about a new Trump administration measure to "loosen Obama-era restrictions on religious organizations that receive federal money to provide social services." It's the kind of change that's likely to affect a lot people -- all of whom are vulnerable, many of whom lack political capital.

In new rules coordinated across nine federal agencies, the administration said it was clearing barriers that make it difficult for religious groups to participate in federal programs. Chief among the changes is the elimination of a rule requiring faith-based groups to tell clients about their religious affiliation and to refer clients to a different program upon request. It also removes a rule telling religious groups to give clients written notice about their rights, including that they can't be forced to participate in religious activities.

The AP's report went on to note that the new policy applies to funding from nine agencies including the Department of Veterans Affairs, the Education Department, and the Department of Health and Human Services, which collectively award "billions of dollars a year in grants and contracts."

Some historical context is in order.

As regular readers may recall, for several decades, religious social-service organizations have competed for government contracts -- receiving funds to run soup kitchens and shelters, for example -- but safeguards were put in place to protect everyone involved. Faith-based groups that accepted public money, for example, couldn't proselytize to those receiving benefits.

There were constitutional considerations, obviously, coupled with common sense: if a religious group wanted to convert people, it'd be wildly inappropriate for the government to give the organization taxpayer money and a social-service contract to help the group achieve its goal.

Nearly 20 years ago, however, the Bush/Cheney administration launched what it called the "White House faith-based initiative," which targeted the safeguards, branded them "burdensome regulations," and replaced them with vastly looser restrictions.

The Obama administration restored the safeguards. The Trump administration is un-restoring them.

In practical terms, consider a hypothetical. Imagine a gay combat veteran turns to the VA for guidance on PTSD counseling, and the Department of Veterans Affairs refers him to a church in his area led by an anti-gay minister. Under the Obama-era policy, if the veteran had concerns, the church would be responsible for helping refer him to an alternative provider.

Under the new Trump administration policies, that requirement no longer exists.

As my friend Rob Boston, at Americans United for Separation of Church and State, explained this morning, "The coronavirus pandemic has exposed just how fragile economic realities are for many Americans. A job loss or illness or death in a family can take a person from a position of comfort to a food bank in a matter of days.

"When times get tough, growing numbers of Americans rely on social services. They should be able to get those services – whether it's provision of food, job training, substance abuse counseling, elder care, etc. – without worrying about being pressured to take part in religious worship. Thanks to Trump administration policies, it's getting harder to do that."

Yes, the incoming Biden/Harris administration will likely take steps to restore Obama-era safeguards, but that will take time, and it's difficult to know how many beneficiaries will face unnecessarily difficult circumstances between now and then.