Child Welfare

New Rule Risks the Religious Liberty, Safety, and Wellbeing of Children in Need

March 6, 2020 | National

In March of 2010, the President’s Advisory Council on Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships issued a series of 12 unanimous recommendations, designed to strengthen the effectiveness of social service partnerships between the public sector and faith community, while protecting religious freedom. The Council was made up of a diverse group of 24 religious leaders and leaders of faith-based organizations, who described themselves as, “the first time a governmental entity has convened individuals with serious differences on some church-state issues and asked them to seek common ground in this area.”

Based on those 12 unanimous recommendations, the Obama administration amended the rules governing how the government worked with faith-based organizations. Among other requirements, those rules mandated that faith-based organizations provide written notice to beneficiaries of their religious liberty protections, including the right to receive services free of proselytization and the right to receive a referral to an alternate provider if they objected to the religious character of the organization. The rules were meant to ensure that vulnerable people wouldn’t forgo needed services out of discomfort with the practices of a particular faith-based organization or for fear of religious persecution.

In January of this year, however, the Trump administration announced a new rule that would rescind many of the new requirements, including the referral and written notice requirements. The administration argued that requiring referrals and documentation of religious liberties was overly burdensome for faith providers. However, the administration’s own estimates claimed, “the removal of the referrals requirement would, at most, generate de minimis [so minor as to merit disregard] benefits for faith-based social service providers” and that the requirement to provide notice imposes “a cost of no more than $200 per organization per year.”

The Children’s Defense Fund strongly opposes these measures because the potential impact on children is far greater than a $200 cost or an impact so minor as to merit disregard. Denying the right to referrals will cause qualified people, both children and parents to forgo services because they do not feel comfortable or safe with faith-based providers. These services are crucial for helping children in need and for preventing child abuse and neglect. Removing the requirement to provide notice of religious liberties makes it far more likely that people, especially children in the child welfare system, will be placed in situations where they do not feel safe, as they cannot exercise their rights if they don’t know they exist. This not only threatens children’s religious liberty, but it makes it more likely they will avoid or services they need to heal from trauma they have experienced or that foster and adoptive parents will avoid services that would be beneficial for youth.

Risking the religious liberty, safety and well-being of children so organizations can save $200 or less and receive de minimis benefits is not only shortsighted, it is antithetical to the work social service agencies are contracted to do.

The Children’s Defense Fund is proud to have partnered with the faith community since our inception. In child welfare specifically, we have seen the vital importance of faith-based organizations to ensuring children have safe, supportive and loving homes. This rule reflects the views of only a small fraction of faith-based organizations and not the broader faith community. In valuing those beliefs over the religious liberty, safety and well-being of children, it does a great disservices to the people our social service system is meant to serve. We urge the administration to reverse this rule immediately.

To see the Children’s Defense Fund’s comments on the rule, click here.

To learn more about CDF’s viewpoints and analysis on issues impacting children and youth in child welfare, click here.