Image Source: Jorge Láscar

May 14th, 2018; Washington Post

Whose religious freedom takes precedence, the provider of services or the recipient? In his recent order transforming the Executive Branch’s Office Faith-Based and Neighborhood Initiatives into a new Faith and Opportunity Initiative, President Trump came down heavily on the side of service providers’ rights over those they serve. This ended a period of effective collaboration on balancing some very difficult issues.

In 2009, President Obama recognized the need to respect the religious beliefs of both providers and recipients, even when they may conflict, and the inherent power imbalance that exists in these relationships because people in need of government services may not be willing or able to risk their loss. His process engaged a wide range of religious opinions and produced a set of rules that required service providers whose religious commitments barred them from providing specific activities that were part of programs under which they were funded to make reasonable efforts to refer clients to an alternate provider. It also required providers to give their clients written notice of their rights to all services and their ability obtain a referral to another provider.

Writing in Washington Post, Melissa Rogers, who directed the White House Office of Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships from 2013 to 2017, illustrated the kind of situation these rules were meant to mediate.

A Catholic victim of human trafficking is cared for by a federally funded evangelical nonprofit. The nonprofit also organizes Bible study groups and invites her to attend. She’s afraid if she refuses to attend a Bible study, she could lose her government benefits. Will she be told that she doesn’t need to participate in the Bible study to receive federally funded services?

President Trump’s recent executive order removed these two requirements, placing the burden of finding alternative service providers solely on the recipient’s shoulders.

Religious leaders complained that the referral requirement gave them a responsibility that should not be placed on their shoulders. The Jewish Telegraphic Agency quoted Rabbi Abba Cohen, director of the Washington chapter of the Orthodox group Agudah Israel of America, saying,

With or without the executive order provision, we believe that the First Amendment has no tolerance for ‘forced’ proselytization, and that is why we have always supported referrals…If a faith-based provider is able and willing to help with a referral, as they generally have been, that’s fine. But being mandated to do this is not beneficial when it is taking their energies away when they would be better utilized in providing actual services.

For some objectors, the previous rules were not just an undue burden but placed them in the position of having to make a referral to an alternate provider who might provide a service that violated a religious principal. From their perspective, just making that referral violates their religious freedom. Stanley Carlson-Thies, who worked with the faith-based initiative under both Bush and Obama, told Deseret News, “Some (faith-based) organizations were concerned that in referring someone to another organization for prenatal care, they would end up being served at a place that would push elective abortions.”

The concerns of providers are important, but do they negate the rights of those they serve? Rogers concludes ,

Removing religious liberty protections in the name of religious freedom taints the cause. Honoring freedom for faith-based providers, while taking it away from people receiving services, is wrong. Breaking the long-standing pattern of respect for common-ground consultations is shortsighted. Undermining bipartisan support for effective partnerships that serve people in need is inexcusable. One way or another, those who value religious liberty and social service partnerships must fix these mistakes.

—Marty Levine