HHS Announces Joint Final Rule Regarding Equal Treatment of Faith-Based Organizations in HHS-Supported Social Service Programs

Today, the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) announced a joint final rule with eight other agencies—the Department of Justice, the Department of Homeland Security, the Department of Labor, the Department of Education, the Department of Housing and Urban Development, the Department of Agriculture, the Agency for International Development, and the Department of Veterans Affairs—to implement President Trump’s Executive Order No. 13831, on the Establishment of a White House Faith and Opportunity Initiative (May 3, 2018).  This rule ensures that faith-based and secular organizations are treated equally in HHS-supported programs, and it clarifies that faith-based organizations do not lose their legal protections and rights just because they participate in federal programs and activities. 

“Faith-based organizations, Americans of faith, and civil society organizations play a vital role in providing Americans with access to healthcare and human services,” said HHS Secretary Alex Azar. “This new rule reflects the commitment President Trump has upheld during his time in office to protect the religious freedom and conscience rights of all Americans, including those who receive support from federal programs to do their good work.”

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. This final rule also clarifies that faith-based organizations do not lose various legal protections because they participate in federal programs and activities, such as the rights to accommodations and conscience protections under the First Amendment, Religious Freedom Restoration Act, and other federal laws. 

This final rule preserves most of the existing regulations governing participation of faith-based organizations in the HHS’s financial assistance programs, including provisions barring providers from discriminating against beneficiaries based on religion and requiring that any religious activities by the faith-based organization be separated in time or location from any services funded directly with federal money.  

The final rule was drafted in response to Executive Order 13831, issued in May 2018.  The agencies worked collaboratively to draft notices of proposed rulemaking that were published or delivered to Congress in January 2020.  The nine agencies received a total of over 95,000 public comments from a range of interested parties, including Members of Congress; state and local governments, agencies, and officials; faith-based services providers and umbrella organizations; advocacy organizations; and individuals.  The agencies considered those comments and modified their regulations to address concerns raised in the comments; the final rule contains responses to all comments received on the proposed rules. 

The joint final rule can be found at https://www.federalregister.gov/public-inspection/2020-27084/equal-participation-of-faith-based-organizations-in-the-federal-agencies-programs-and-activities.

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