The Trump administration on Monday approved a rule that allows faith-based health and social service providers to receive federal funds without requiring them to inform clients about services they don't provide for religious reasons or refer clients to alternative providers that offer such services.
It also clarifies that HHS will not discriminate against faith-based organizations on applications for grants or awards based on the organization's religious policies. That could affect Title X reproductive healthcare funding for pregnancy counseling groups that oppose contraception and abortion.
"This final rule ensures equal treatment for faith-based organizations, consistent with the Constitution and other federal law. It removes requirements in prior regulations that placed unequal burdens on faith-based organizations, cast unwarranted suspicion on them, and were in tension with their religious liberty rights," HHS said in a statement. It also makes clear that faith-based organizations keep their legal protections, including rights to accommodations and conscience protections under the First Amendment, if they take part in federal programs and activities.
The rule takes effect in January.
Experts worry the changes would deny patients and people seeking social services the information they need to make informed decisions about necessary services.
The final version prohibits federal agencies from selecting or disqualifying organizations based on religious character affiliation and adds additional language based on the Free Exercise Clause and Religious Freedom Restoration Act. It includes legal language to guard against future lawsuits too.
"To the extent that any provision of this regulation is declared invalid by a court of competent jurisdiction, the agency intends for all other provisions that are capable of operating in the absence of the specific provision that has been invalidated to remain in effect," the rule said. Experts believe the rule will get challenged in court.
The final rule reverses an Obama-era regulation requiring faith-based healthcare and social service providers to refer clients to an alternative provider if clients object to the religious policies. It follows up on President Donald Trump's 2017 executive order creating a new White House office dedicated to empowering faith-based organizations and promoting religious freedom. It could be on the chopping block as soon as President-elect Joe Biden takes office next month.