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Faith groups receiving federal grants will gain new protections before Trump leaves office

The Trump administration announced Monday it will finalize and publish updates to rules governing church-state partnerships before President-elect Joe Biden’s inauguration day.

SHARE Faith groups receiving federal grants will gain new protections before Trump leaves office
SHARE Faith groups receiving federal grants will gain new protections before Trump leaves office

National Religious Freedom Day is more than a month away, but the Trump administration has already shared its celebration plans.

Officials announced Monday that previously proposed changes to the rules governing church-state partnerships will take effect that day, Jan. 16, 2021, after being published in the federal register later this week.

Under the updated regulations, faith groups that take part in federal grant programs will no longer need to alert potential clients about their right to refuse to participate in religious activities led by the group or provide referrals to secular organizations upon request.

The new rules, which apply to programs overseen by nine different agencies, aim to ensure that religiously affiliated service providers are treated the same as other grant recipients and encourage more faith groups to apply, said Kelly Shackelford, president and CEO of First Liberty Institute, in an interview with the Deseret News last month.

“These changes will be good for every American and especially for people in need,” he said.

Other experts on religious freedom law paint a bleaker picture of what life will be like once the proposed regulations take effect.

The new rules may benefit faith-based providers of free or reduced cost housing, medical treatment and other services, but the change could increase the likelihood that people in need of help will face religious discrimination, said Rachel Laser, who serves as president and CEO of Americans United for Separation of Church and State, in a statement.

“People should never be forced to choose between obtaining taxpayer-funded services they desperately need and remaining true to their personal religious beliefs and identity,” she said.

Laser’s organization has been fighting the rule changes since they were first announced earlier this year and, just last month, spoke with the Deseret News about problems that could arise if the Trump administration finalized them just before leaving office.

Maggie Garrett, who serves as Americans United’s vice president for public policy, questioned why federal officials would move forward with regulatory updates that the Biden administration is very likely to work to overturn.

Incoming officials will “have to go through the rule-making process again,” she said. “People could be harmed in the meantime.”

However, similar concerns haven’t stopped previous administrations from publishing a variety of policy changes during their final days in office, and they’re not slowing down President Donald Trump. His administration has also been working to finalize rules affecting businesses, immigration and environmental protections.


Evan Vucci, Associated Press

“Some people are saying this is unprecedented, but that’s crazy,” said Stanley Carlson-Thies, president and founder of the Institutional Religious Freedom Alliance, to the Deseret News in November. “This is very common.”

It’s also very welcome by supporters of the Trump administration’s approach to religious freedom, including Shackelford. The proximity of President-elect Joe Biden’s inauguration day shouldn’t interfere with the current president’s policy moves, he said.

“The administration is still in power ... and they should do what they were elected to do, which includes protecting religious freedom,” he said.

Once Biden takes office, he will be able to pursue his own approach to faith-related policy.

Nick Fish, the president of American Atheists, said he hopes Biden’s approach will include prioritizing the needs of everyday Americans over the concerns of religious organizations.

“Starting on day one of the Biden administration, we will work with the new leadership at these departments and agencies to fix these discriminatory changes that undermine Americans’ religious liberties,” he said in a statement.