The Education Dept. and eight other federal agencies issue a set of proposed new rules that will strengthen the funding partnerships the federal government forms with faith-based and community organizations for the purpose of serving people in need.
Public Comment Deadline: Oct. 5.
The federal agencies are issuing notices of proposed rulemaking (NPRMs) that would clarify rules that apply to these partnerships and extend added protections for social service beneficiaries.
The impetus for these reforms came from a diverse Advisory Council for Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships (Advisory Council). President Obama asked this Council to make recommendations for strengthening the social service partnerships the government forms with nongovernmental providers, including strengthening the constitutional and legal footing of these partnerships. The council issued its recommendations in a report A New Era of Partnerships: Report of Recommendations to the President (http://tinyurl.com/oc26qfs). In response to the recommendations, Obama signed Executive Order 13559.
The order also established the Interagency Working Group on Faith-Based and Other Neighborhood Partnerships to evaluate federal agencies’ existing regulations and policies, and developing a model set of regulations. The Office of Management and Budget (OMB) has instructed agency heads to adopt regulatory changes and guidance consistent with model regulations and guidance developed by the Working Group.
The new rules would require agencies that administer or award federal financial assistance for social service programs to implement protections to ensure beneficiaries are protected from discrimination on the basis of their own religion or religious beliefs, or based on a refusal to attend or participate in a religious activity.
The proposed DoEd regulations include:
- Clarify that decisions about the awarding of grants and subgrants must be based on merit and must be free from political interference or even the appearance of such interference.
- Replace the term “inherently religious activities” in the existing regulations with the term “explicitly religious activities” in order to more closely align with current constitutional standards and clarify the scope of activities covered by the regulations.
- Define the terms “direct federal financial assistance” and “indirect federal financial assistance” so that faith-based organizations understand that certain religious liberty protections are triggered under the updated regulations only if a faith-based organization receives direct federal financial assistance.
- If a beneficiary of a supported program objects to the religious character of an organization, the organization must make reasonable efforts to refer that individual to an alternative provider.
- Require faith-based organizations supported with direct federal financial assistance provide beneficiaries with a written notice informing them of a variety of religious liberty protections, including steps that must be taken to refer the beneficiary to an alternative provider, if the beneficiary requests such a provider.
The proposed rules clarify the principle that organizations offering explicitly religious activities may not subsidize those activities with direct federal financial assistance and must separate such activities in time or location from programs supported with direct federal financial assistance. For example, if a faith-based provider offers a Bible study as well as a federally supported job training program, the Bible study must be privately funded and separated in time or location from the job training program, officials said.
At the same time, the NPRMs assure religious providers of their equal ability to compete for government funds and of continuing protections for their religious identity like the ability of providers to use religious terms in their organizational names and to include religious references in mission statements and in other organizational documents. The NPRMs also state that the standards in the proposed regulations apply to sub-awards as well as prime awards.
The agencies are: the departments of Agriculture, Education, Health and Human Services, Homeland Security, Housing and Urban Development, Justice, Labor, Veterans Affairs and the U.S. Agency for International Development