Lambda Legal and Several Advocacy Groups Sue Trump Administration for Gutting Religious Nondiscrimination Protections

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January 19, 2021

Lambda Legal and a coalition of service and advocacy groups filed suit against the Trump administration for rolling back religious freedom protections that required faith-based organizations providing critical, taxpayer-funded services (like food and shelter) to inform recipients of their legal rights to be free from discrimination, not to have to attend religious programming, and to have the opportunity to get a referral for an alternative provider. The unlawful rule, effective today, makes it harder for already marginalized populations to access essential social services as the U.S. continues to reel from a historic pandemic and economic collapse.

“It’s outrageous and alarming that the Trump administration, on its way out of town and in the midst of a raging pandemic, cannot resist one last shot at key nondiscrimination protections across no less than nine federal agencies that serve people in crisis. This last gasp effort yet again privileges religion and religious institutions over the needs of LGBTQ people, seniors, youth who are survivors of trafficking, survivors of interpersonal violence, and other vulnerable populations that our publicly funded programs are intended to serve, and who need these services to survive and thrive.” said Jennifer Pizer, Lambda Legal’s Law and Policy Director.

“This shameful Trump administration rule change will severely impair the ability of these community members to know their rights and obtain sometimes life-saving services. This is the 46th lawsuit we have had to file against the Trump administration to block its obsessive, lawless efforts to create ever-greater free passes for religious entities and to target refugees, communities of color, women, and LGBTQ people.” Pizer added.

The lawsuit was filed by a group of plaintiffs: MAZON: A Jewish Response to Hunger, SAGE, the New York City Anti-Violence Project, Ark of Freedom Alliance, Freedom From Religion Foundation, American Atheists, and the Hindu American Foundation. Filed against the Trump-led Departments of Health and Human Services, Agriculture, Housing and Urban Development, Veterans Affairs, Education, Homeland Security, Justice, and Labor, the suit seeks to reverse the unlawful rollback of these important protections. Democracy Forward, Americans United for Separation of Church and State, and Lambda Legal represent the plaintiffs.

The Trump administration’s rollback has sweeping effects. Without the notice and referral requirements:

• A transgender teen experiencing homelessness might — out of fear of discrimination — avoid a federally funded shelter associated with a religion that condemns LGBTQ people;

• A hungry family would have no reason to know they have no obligation to join in prayer or say grace in order to receive food from a church program supported with tax dollars;

• A Hindu refugee would likely be unaware that they can turn down an invitation to join a Bible study group and still receive federally funded job training services;

• Older Americans who don’t know their rights might participate in religious services that are contrary to their own beliefs and disparage their LGBTQ identity because they fear they could lose access to federally funded long-term care services if they do not.

Unfortunately, illegal discrimination against service recipients does occur. For instance, a 2020 survey of LGBTQ people experiencing food insecurity found that, while many experiences at faith-based providers were positive, a substantial percentage were not. In the face of this rejection, many decided to forgo the needed food. The Trump administration’s elimination of these common-sense, “know-your-rights” requirements deprives vulnerable populations of the information they need to fight discrimination.

The Trump administration’s rollback is arbitrary and capricious. Among other things, it provided no reasonable explanation for the rule change, failed to account for its harms, and failed to consider obvious alternatives to the changes they finalized — all in violation of the Administrative Procedure Act.

The lawsuit was filed on January 19 in the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of New York. Read it in full here.