WASHINGTON – Today Interfaith Alliance submitted comments to nine federal agencies regarding proposed changes to the way these agencies contract with religious organizations. In these comments to the Department of Education, Department of Homeland Security, Department of Justice, Department of Health and Human Services, Department of Labor, Housing and Urban Development, the Department of Agriculture, USAID, and the VA, Interfaith Alliance laid out its continuing concerns about protecting religious freedom when the government contracts with religious entities:
On behalf of Interfaith Alliance, whose membership represents individuals across the religious spectrum dedicated to protecting religious freedom, thank you for the opportunity to provide comments to the Notice of Proposed Rulemaking (NPRM) “Nondiscrimination in Matters Pertaining to Faith-Based Organizations.”
Since the creation of the Faith Based Initiative, Interfaith Alliance has expressed concerns about the Constitutional implications of the program. Our former president, Rev. Dr. C. Welton Gaddy, was honored to serve on the task force that examined the Faith Based Initiative and offered several key proposals for reform. We continue to believe that when the government chooses to contract with religious organizations, it must take particular caution not to discriminate among religions or to fund overtly sectarian efforts. The rules proposed here are an important step in establishing those necessary assurances.
Interfaith Alliance is a proud, longtime member of the Coalition Against Religious Discrimination (CARD). We have joined comments from the coalition which outline in detail our perspective on the proposed changes, the great strides we believe they make and the work that is left to do to protect religious freedom. In these comments, I would like to emphasize in particular the following three areas that need to be addressed further to best protect religious freedom when religious organizations contract with the federal government.
Iconography: When religious organizations contract to provide government services, we understand that services may often be offered in spaces that also provide religious services. In such cases the contracting agency must take certain steps to ensure that people of all faiths, and those of no particular faith, can comfortably access the services promised them. This requires, wherever possible, the temporary removal or covering of religious iconography in spaces providing government services. To truly respect the power of religious iconography, we must recognize the sacred symbols may resonate with the unique message of a faith community in a way that creates a particular religious overlay even to secular activities. The Constitution cannot allow requiring or encouraging individuals to confront a religious experience in order to receive government services. We’d urge you to add in the final rule clear guidelines for the handling of religious iconography in spaces providing government-contracted services.
Contracting with Religious Organizations: I was encouraged to see that the proposed rule includes language precluding the government from discriminating against or among religious organizations when awarding contracts. If the government is going to contract with religious organizations, our nation’s staunch prohibition of religious discrimination requires that the government open their consideration to organizations representing all faiths, and secular organizations. However, this language should not be interpreted as precluding the government from prioritizing organizations that are better able or more willing to fulfill the mandate of a particular contract. Recently, we have seen several religious organizations apply for contracts that include requirements for the provision of reproductive health counselling. These organizations are seeking these contracts while simultaneously stating that they have no intention of meeting those specific requirements. It should not be considered religious discrimination for the government to prioritize contracting with agencies that are more willing and able to complete the full scope of a contract. The final rule should be revised to make that clear.
Employment Discrimination: President Obama made a powerful statement last summer when he signed an Executive Order barring employment discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity by the federal government and federal contractors. When someone chooses to contract with the federal government they must accept the government’s mandate to separate religious ideology and government operations – public money should never fund religiously-motivated discrimination. However, an Office of Legal Counsel memo – adopted by the previous administration but maintained today – still allows religious contractors to opt out of these nondiscrimination requirements. We would urge you to take this opportunity, while you are rethinking your agency’s relationship to religious organizations, to do everything in your power to require all of your contractors to abandon discrimination and adopt equal employment practices.
Your agency has graciously met with Interfaith Alliance and other representatives of the Coalition Against Religious Discrimination throughout the process of reforming the Faith Based Initiative. We are happy to meet again to discuss the great work your agency has done and our remaining concerns. Thank you once more for all of your efforts to ensure that the religious freedom of all those receiving government services is protected.
Rabbi Jack Moline
Interfaith Alliance celebrates religious freedom by championing individual rights, promoting policies that protect both religion and democracy, and uniting diverse voices to challenge extremism. Founded in 1994, Interfaith Alliance brings together members from 75 faith traditions as well as those without a faith tradition to protect faith and freedom. For more information visit interfaithalliance.org.