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Trump policy draws criticism, but will it help people of faith help people in need?

The proposed rule change would enable more religiously affiliated social service organizations to receive federal funds.

President Donald Trump takes the stage at a rally at BancorpSouth Arena in Tupelo, Miss., Friday, Nov. 1, 2019.
Andrew Harnik, Associated Press

SALT LAKE CITY — In a long-awaited but still controversial move, the Trump administration on Friday announced plans to change federal policy to make it easier for faith-based social service organizations to operate according to their religious beliefs.

If enacted, the proposed rule would adjust nondiscrimination requirements for agencies receiving federal grant money, enabling religiously affiliated adoption facilitators, homeless shelters, health care clinics and other organizations to take part in Department of Health and Human Services funding programs even if they refuse to work with LGBTQ clients.

The Trump administration, as well as many faith leaders, argue that the policy shift is necessary in order to uphold the federal government’s commitment to religious freedom. They say current nondiscrimination protections governing HHS funding, which were put in place by the Obama administration right before President Donald Trump took office, wrongly prevent conservative faith groups from helping people in need.

“To restrict faith-based organizations’ work by infringing on religious freedom ... is unfair and serves no one,” argued a statement from a group of U.S. Catholic bishops.

Similarly, Russell Moore, president of the Southern Baptist Convention’s Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission, said in a statement that the proposed rule change will ensure that clashes over LGBTQ rights don’t interfere with important social service work, like finding new homes for children in foster care.

“This new regulation from the Trump administration is a welcome signal that the child welfare system is about the welfare of children — not proxy culture wars,” Moore said.

LGBTQ rights activists and more liberal people of faith decried the proposed policy change as an attack on members of the LGBTQ community. They claim that limiting gay Americans’ access to important services like homeless shelters is worse than preventing some faith-based organizations from receiving government funds.

“The rule would directly and gravely harm some of our nation’s most vulnerable people — children in foster care, senior citizens and youth experiencing homelessness,” said Rachel Laser, president and CEO of Americans United for Separation of Church and State, in a statement released Friday.

Leslie Cooper, deputy director of the American Civil Liberties Union’s LGBT and HIV Project, called the Trump’s administration’s efforts “despicable,” arguing that the government should find ways to increase the pool of potential foster parents, not limit gay couples’ options.

“It is despicable that this administration would authorize taxpayer-funded child welfare agencies to discriminate against children and turn away qualified families they desperately need,” she said in a statement.

Six-in-10 U.S. adults oppose allowing faith-based adoption agencies that receive federal funding to refuse to place children with qualified gay and lesbian couples, according to Public Religion Research Institute.

What supporters and opponents of the proposed funding rule agree on is that it won’t resolve broader debates about the rights of religiously affiliated social service agencies and the LGBTQ community. It also won’t prevent Congress from pursuing the Equality Act, which would create new federal nondiscrimination protections for gay and transgender Americans, or organizations like the ACLU from challenging the Trump administration’s policies in court.

There are already multiple cases playing out across the country involving faith-based organizations that receive federal funds, and the Supreme Court may hear a case on the rights of religiously affiliated adoption agencies as soon as this term, tweeted Lori Windham, senior counsel for the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty, which has represented several faith-based adoption and foster care agencies in court.

“Ultimately, we need not just better regulations, but a clear answer from the courts,” she said.