Mon. Jan 18th, 2021
Equal treatment for religion—but for how long?

The U.S. Department of Education alongside eight other federal agencies on Monday announced changes to protect the religious liberty of faith-based groups that participate in government-sponsored programs and make sure they don’t face more barriers or burdens than secular groups. Under the changes, for example, private religious schools would not be disqualified from participating in grants for federally funded Upward Bound programs that help low-income, homeless, disabled, and otherwise disadvantaged high school students prepare for successful college application and performance.

The joint rule follows other protections for religious people and organizations flowing from an executive order President Donald Trump issued in May 2018.

Last week, the Department of Labor announced a rule giving faith-based government contractors the right to make employment decisions based on their religious beliefs. The change clarified that religious employers can hire only people who adhere to the tenets of their faith. It also extends religious liberty protections for churches to also cover “a corporation, association, educational institution, society, school, college, university, or institution of learning” that is “organized for a religious purpose.” That means it could protect for-profit entities like a small store or a hospital as long it is upfront about its religious purpose.

While groups like the American Civil Liberties Union have called the rule a “license to discriminate,” religious liberty advocates praised the agency for protecting faith-based organizations’ ability to carry out their goals.

“When a religious group hires people of the same religion to carry out their mission, it’s not ‘discrimination,’ it’s common sense,” Becket Senior Counsel Luke Goodrich told Catholic News Service. “And when the government refuses to work with religious groups that do the best job of caring for the needy, it’s not ‘equality,’ it’s nonsense.”

Critics predict that President-elect Joe Biden’s administration will take steps to roll back these protections, but that’s not done at the flick of a pen. “Nothing is so permanent as a temporary government program,” quipped economist Milton Friedman, hinting at the difficulty of change. That may work to liberty’s advantage this time.

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