Religious organizations often participate in federally funded programs that provide social services to the poor and needy, as well as in disaster situations. In the past, some administrations have imposed rules via federal agencies that forced those religious organizations to comply with rules not required of secular groups, while other administrations have removed those restrictions in order to protect the religious freedom and distinctives of those organizations.
A new bill introduced by several U.S. senators seeks to end the politically motivated, back-and-forth rules of federal agencies relating to such financial assistance, by passing a law that would, once and for all, make religious freedom a guarantee of such programs.
The bill, called the “Lifting Local Communities Act,” creates a level playing field for religious organizations participating in such federal programs and ensures they will not be discriminated against by the federal government because of their religious nature.
Seven Republican senators are co-sponsoring the bill, including Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., Sen. Rick Scott, R-Fla., Sen. Josh Hawley, R-Mo., Sen. Cindy Hyde-Smith, R-Miss., Sen. James Inhofe, R-Okla., Sen. James Lankford, R-Okla., and Sen. Tim Scott, R-S.C.
Sen. Hyde-Smith explained the need for the bill in a press release.
“The Lifting Local Communities Act would protect religious organizations from the unfair policies that subject them to requirements that secular organizations don’t have to worry about,” the senator said. “This bill would codify the right of faith-based organizations to do their work without the government threatening their religious liberties.”
The co-sponsors have provided a one-page explanation of what the bill would accomplish, including:
- Ensure that religious organizations are eligible to apply for, and provide, federal social services on the same basis as non-religious organizations;
- Ensure that religious organizations that receive federal funds maintain their independence and freedom to retain their name, structure, and religious practices;
- Clarify that religious providers will not be prohibited from providing religious services and using religious language at the same time and location as federally funded services;
- Subject to certain exemptions and accommodations for religious organizations, prohibit discrimination against a program participant on the basis of religion or religious belief, or lack thereof, in the provision of federally funded social services;
- To preserve beneficiary choice and organizations’ exercise of their faith, require that the federal, state, or local government refer a participant to another provider if the participant has an objection to the nature or character of the private organization providing the service;
- Clarify that religious exemptions in federal law regarding an organization’s hiring decisions and other protections of religious belief and practice continue to apply when a religious organization takes federal money; and
- Create a private right of action for religious organizations to sue if its rights under this bill are violated.
The bill’s fate in the equally divided Senate, which requires 60 votes to move forward, is unknown. No companion bill has yet been introduced in the House of Representatives.