Last Friday, the Trump administration released draft language for a proposed rule that would remove important Obama-era non-discrimination regulations. The rule would reverse a regulation stating that “no person otherwise eligible will be excluded from participation in, denied the benefits of, or subjected to discrimination,” in any program that was funded by the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS). Repeal of this regulation would remove protections on the basis of sex, religion, gender identity and sexual orientation in taxpayer-funded programs. The administration announced that enforcement of these regulations would end immediately.
An obvious impact of this will be felt in the child welfare system, as this rule echoes a waiver given to South Carolina this January to allow federally-funded adoption agencies to discriminate against families on religious grounds. In the South Carolina case, we have seen otherwise eligible foster and adoptive families denied because they are Catholic, Jewish or gay. It’s especially galling that this rule was released on the first day of National Adoption Month and just days after the release of AFCARS Report #26, which showed that the number of children waiting to be adopted has risen for the 6th year in a row. According to HHS’s own report, more than 125,000 children are waiting to be adopted, yet this rule will make it easier to deny otherwise qualified adoptive parents. Every day a child spends in foster care when they could be in a family is a tragedy, and it is unconscionable to reject people willing to be the safe, loving families that children need, solely because of their religion or their sexual orientation.
But this expanded rule won’t simply affect children who are waiting to be adopted—it would apply to all programs funded by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. Religious organizations providing shelter to homeless youth would be allowed to deny youth who aren’t Christian. Those that provide health screenings can refuse to provide HIV and STI screenings or prevention services to LGBTQ youth. Federally subsidized pre-K programs could deny the children of single mothers. Organizations could discriminate in these ways and countless others, all while raking in millions of dollars of taxpayer funds.
For more than four decades, the Children’s Defense Fund has stood firm in the view that, in any policy decisions, the impact on our nation’s children must be paramount. This proposed rule will be disastrous for children, particularly for those belonging to any marginalized group. According to its stated mission, the Department of Health & Human Services exists “to enhance and protect the health and well-being of all Americans,” but this proposed rule will do nothing but make our most vulnerable children more vulnerable. Allowing state-sponsored discrimination is a gross dereliction of the agency’s duty to protect children.