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Federal proposal would burden faith-based groups, says ERLC

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WASHINGTON (BP)—The Southern Baptist Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission has called on nine federal agencies to revoke a proposed rule it says would unduly burden the rights of faith-based organizations that take part in government programs.

In public comments filed March 14, the ERLC objected to the regulation offered by the Department of Education (DOE) and other agencies. If finalized, the proposal would not only infringe on the convictions of faith-based organizations (FBOs) but threaten services to millions of Americans, according to the commission.

The ERLC urges the agencies to rescind the proposed regulation “to not only fully respect the First Amendment rights of people of all faiths, but also allow those on the front lines of serving the most vulnerable among us to continue doing the life-saving work they are best positioned to do,” said Brent Leatherwood, the entity’s president, in his letter.

The rule “could bring the federal government to a standstill by excluding faith-based groups from providing services that serve the most vulnerable, underserved populations,” he wrote.

Faith-based organizations partner with the federal government to address needs in such fields as addiction, community development, foster care, health care, homelessness, mental health care and refugee resettlement.

The ERLC’s Hannah Daniel told Baptist Press, “Without the presence of faith-based service providers, most refugees would not be resettled, thousands of children would not be adopted and many individuals experiencing homelessness would have no shelter.”

The proposed rule “jeopardizes the ability of these organizations to continue serving their communities without compromising their deeply held religious beliefs,” said Daniel, the commission’s policy manager, in written remarks.

The federal agencies under President Biden proposed the rule Jan. 13 in an attempt they said to “reach the widest possible eligible population, including historically marginalized communities.” The proposal also is an effort “to address and correct inconsistencies and confusion” presented by a 2020 rule implemented during the Trump administration.

While the proposed rule still permits FBOs to receive federal funds, it violates their rights “in its explicit attempts to separate the designated services offered by [FBOs] from their various ‘religious activities’” and establishes “status-based discrimination,” Leatherwood told the agencies in his letter.

Its requirement that FBOs provide referrals to secular organizations that offer similar services if clients disagree with the religious groups’ convictions “is both untenable and an infringement of the rights of the organization created solely on the basis of their religious beliefs,” he wrote.

Christians, Leatherwood said in his letter, “are compelled by their faith to serve their community, but are equally compelled by their faith to adhere to religious convictions and tenets as they serve. Agencies should not adopt rules that force them to choose between these two deeply held beliefs.”

Leatherwood also said the proposal:

— “[F]ails to protect faith-based organizations’ right to hire and fire employees based on adherence to tenets that are fundamental to their deeply held religious beliefs.

“[FBOs] must be allowed to fully exercise their religious beliefs in all aspects of their organization, including, but not limited to, employment decisions.”

— Will lead “to greater confusion for [FBOs], making them less likely to partner with the federal government in meeting the needs of our communities.”

In addition to the Department of Education, the other agencies proposing the rule on “Partnerships With Faith-based and Neighborhood Organizations” are the Agency for International Development and the Departments of Agriculture, Health and Human Services, Homeland Security, Housing and Urban Development, Justice, Labor and Veterans Affairs.