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Biden, Trump and a never-ending religious freedom battle

These little-known religious freedom policies get updated each time power changes hands

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President Joe Biden speaks Monday, Jan. 16, 2023, in Washington.

President Joe Biden speaks at the National Action Network’s Martin Luther King, Jr., Day breakfast, Monday, Jan. 16, 2023, in Washington.

Susan Walsh, Associated Press

This article was first published in the State of Faith newsletter. Sign up to receive the newsletter in your inbox each Monday night.

Who needs religious freedom protections more — social service providers or seekers?

That question became relevant once again last week when the Biden administration announced plans to restore protections for the seekers, the people who turn to the government for help finding a job, a new career or other support.

Under the proposals unveiled by nine federal agencies on Jan. 12, government-funded social service organizations would be required to remind clients of their religious freedom rights, including their right to be served in an environment that’s free from faith-based discrimination. Religiously affiliated organizations would also need to be willing to refer potential clients to other nearby services if they expressed discomfort with the group’s religious character.

Many religious freedom advocates have praised the proposals, arguing that it’s important for the focus to be on service-seekers when the government crafts its social service programs.

“Restoring the focus on beneficiaries is welcome news for religious freedom advocates and those who depend on social services. Federal agencies have a responsibility to ensure that Americans who qualify for taxpayer-funded social services will not be coerced into participating in religious activities,” said Holly Hollman, associated executive director and general counsel of the Baptist Joint Committee for Religious Liberty, in a statement.

“We applaud the Biden administration for restoring religious freedom protections for the millions of often vulnerable and marginalized people who use government-funded social services,” said Rachel Laser, president and CEO of Americans United for Separation of Church and State, in a statement.

However, the proposals represent a notable change from the approach favored by the Trump administration, which tweaked a variety of religious freedom rules during its four years in office. In 2018, the Trump administration put forth guidelines that emphasized the religious freedom rights of social service providers, rather than seekers, doing away with Obama-era rules requiring referrals, among other things.

At the time, I spoke with a variety of experts on church-state partnerships, asking for their view on what the Trump administration policies would mean for social service organizations. They noted that the changes would create controversy, reigniting old debates about whether it’s even a good thing for the government to send funds to faith-based organizations.

Their words echoed in my mind last week, as I reflected on the significance of the Biden administration’s plans. In addition to sparking debate about whether social service providers or seekers need more protection, the new proposals will lead to additional conflict over the relationship between churches and the state — conflict that will escalate even further if a future Republican administration adjusts the policies again.

So, in the end, what I’m wondering is what it will take to reach a stable agreement about the role of religion in government-funded social service programs that won’t be updated every four or eight years. Is such an outcome still possible as the topic of religious freedom grows more and more contentious?

Fresh off the press

How personal faith anchored Martin Luther King Jr.’s public life

Can you be forced to work on the Sabbath? The Supreme Court will soon weigh in

Term of the week: #StopAbortionRx

Over the next few weeks, you might notice the hashtag #StopAbortionRx on social media sites. Abortion opponents who are angry about CVS and Walgreens’ plans to sell abortion pills in the states where it’s legal are using the hashtag as a rallying cry.

Such sales only became possible this month after the Food and Drug Administration announced that retail pharmacies could “stock and dispense abortion bills,” according to Politico. After the announcement, prominent abortion rights opponents announced plans to hold protests at CVS and Walgreens in early February.

“Your local pharmacy is becoming an abortion business. Join #StopAbortionRx nationwide protests on Saturday, Feb. 4, to launch our campaign against this expansion of abortion in our country,” explains the #StopAbortionRx website.

Abortion rights advocates, on the other hand, have called for additional FDA policy changes in hopes that even more pharmacies will be willing to sell abortion pills, Politico reported.

“The prospect that some pharmacies might be dissuaded from dispensing the pills even in states where they remain legal has some medical groups and progressive advocates arguing the FDA should have dropped all of its restrictions,” the article said.

What I’m reading...

The federal government has appealed a 2021 ruling that stated the Air Force was 60% responsible for a mass shooting at a church in Sutherland Springs, Texas. The ruling centered on the Air Force’s failure to submit information about the shooter to the FBI’s background check system, CNN reported. In the new appeal, the government argues that it was wrong for the court to say that the government was more responsible for the attack than the shooter himself.

Young evangelicals are more likely than young members of other religious groups to look to their faith, including to their faith leaders, for input on their political positions. But that trust doesn’t prevent them from struggling against teachings they disagree with, religion experts say. Moving forward, evangelical leaders will benefit from listening to their young members as deeply as those members listen to them, according to Religion News Service.

Norway is not a religious country, but Norwegians still have strong opinions about faith. Christianity Today reported earlier this month on the public uproar in the country over a forthcoming Norwegian translation of the Bible that adjusts the wording of some famous verses, including John 3:16.

Odds and ends

Pew Research Center recently released an updated look at how many legal abortions take place in the United States each year.