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Trump's new aid rules will boost religious organisations at expense of secular counterparts

Andrew Feinberg
Donald Trump speaks in the East Room of the White House before the signing of 'phase one' of his new trade agreement with China on 15 January 2020: Kevin Lamarque/Reuters

The Trump administration is proposing new rules that will boost faith-based organisations at the expense of their secular counterparts under the guise of protecting the organisations' religious freedom.

Nine federal agencies that award billions of dollars worth of federal grants each year will begin the process of repealing Obama-era regulations that require social service providers to notify beneficiaries of the existence of alternative providers that are not explicitly religious in nature and make referrals if asked, White House Domestic Policy Council director Joe Grogan said on Thursday.

The nine agencies — the US Departments of Justice, Agriculture, Labour, Homeland Security, Veterans Affairs, Health and Human Services, Education, and Housing and Urban Development, along with the US Agency for International Development — award billions in grants to outside groups for services as diverse as substance abuse treatment, job training, housing assistance, and adoption placement, as well as health care services in the US and abroad.

Under the existing rules, faith-based groups that receive federal funds to provide social services must notify patrons that they have the option of using a provider that is not religious in nature. For example, the current rules require an explicitly Christian drug rehabilitation programme that accepts Medicare to inform prospective patients that alternative treatment facilities that aren't religious are available, and refer patients to such facilities if asked.

Mr Grogan said eliminating such a requirement would "ensure that the federal government's social service programmes are implemented in a manner consistent with religious liberty protections and federal law".

But removing the requirement for faith-based social service providers to make referrals to secular equivalents when asked would mean Americans who might, out of dire need, look for help from such groups — many of which openly proselytise or discriminate on the basis of gender or sexual orientation — could be subjected to bias or indoctrination.

Moreover, the revised rules being proposed by the Trump administration will no longer require religious social service organisations to inform Americans where they might report violations of anti-discrimination laws.

A senior administration official explained that the Obama-era rules were "profoundly unfair" because they did not require non-faith-based organisations to make referrals to their religious counterparts if asked.

"Anytime that one set of groups is carrying a burden that others aren't, we believe that is unequal treatment," the official said. They explained the rules the administration seeks to overturn "cast religious organisations as sort of rights violators in waiting".

"It suggests to everyone who walks in the door of a religious social service entity that maybe they should be offended or uncomfortable or be seeking to find a service elsewhere," the official added before suggesting that a Supreme Court case that found a family-owned company did not have to provide contraceptives in an employee health plan because it violated the owners' religious beliefs applied to the Obama-era rules because they might require religious organisations to refer Americans to secular organisations.

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