Nine federal agencies, including the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS), the Department of Labor, the Department of Justice, the Department of Homeland Security, 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 issued a new, joint federal rule this week protecting the religious freedom rights of government contractors.

The rule has been in the works for a couple years, following President Donald Trump’s Executive Order 13831 issued in May 2018. A proposed rule was issued in 2019, and after a public comment period in which over 95,000 responses were received and evaluated, this joint final rule is official.

In a press release from HHS announcing the final rule, the agency explains the necessity for the action these agencies have taken.

“This final rule ensures equal treatment for faith-based organizations, consistent with the Constitution and other federal law,” the agency says.  “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.” 

Although religious freedom protections for faith-based contractors existed in federal law prior to this, amendments made by the Obama administration that included non-discrimination provisions related to sexual orientation and gender identity put those freedoms at risk. Religious entities doing business with the federal government were concerned they would be required to hire LGBT individuals, for example, or that they might have to give up their religious status to become a federal contractor.

This new rule provides assurance that they will not lose their religious freedom by contracting with the federal government.

Jonathan Wolfson, Deputy Assistant Secretary for policy at the Department of Labor, explained the impact this rule would have during a White House-sponsored conference call on Tuesday. “We wanted religious organizations to understand that they could be full participants in the federal contracting space, because we truly believe that when the federal government has more individuals and more companies that want to become federal contractors, we will be able to provide services to the American people at either a lower cost, or better quality products at the same cost,” he said.

Even with this new rule, faith-based contractors cannot discriminate in the provision of services based on religion. And they must ensure that any religious activities are separated in time or location from any services funded directly with federal taxpayer money. Those are not new restrictions, and faith-based entities have always abided by them.

The new rule will be published in the Federal Register later this week, and until then you’ll be able to read an unofficial version here.

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