HHS Announces Joint Rule Ensuring Equal Treatment of Faith-Based Organizations

On Monday, the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS), along with eight other agencies, announced the implementation of President Donald Trump’s Executive Order No. 13831 through a joint final rule that “ensures that faith-based and secular organizations are treated equally in HHS-supported programs” and “clarifies that faith-based organizations do not lose their legal protections and rights just because they participate in federal programs and activities,” according to an HHS news release.

The final rule comes after fielding comments from interested parties — more than 95,000 — after the agencies drafted notices of proposed rulemaking in January 2020 in regard to the May 2018 Executive Order, entitled Establishment of a White House Faith and Opportunity Initiative.

The rule preserves many existing regulations, including those that protect beneficiaries of service providers from being discriminated against based on religion and that if an organization is faith-based, it shall separate its religious activities from services receiving direct federal funds. Clarified in the rule is that faith-based organizations do not lose legal protections under the First Amendment and Religious Freedom Restoration Act, among other federal laws.

Removed under the rule are provisions that place “unequal burdens” on faith-based organizations, including the removal of notice-and-referral requirements, which said religious organizations must make a reasonable effort to direct a beneficiary to another service if they wish not to participate in the religious activities of the organization. “(R)emoving these requirements serves to remove unnecessary regulatory barriers to enable faith-based organizations to compete for, and participate fully in, Federal financial assistance without impairing their independence, autonomy, expression, or religious character,” according to the final rule.

“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,” HHS Secretary Alex Azar said in the news release.