WASHINGTON, March 31, 2016 – Today the U.S. Department of Agriculture, along with other federal agencies, published a final rule that will provide new religious liberty protections for beneficiaries of federally funded social service programs, while also adding new protections for the ability of religious providers to compete for government funds on the same basis as any other private organization. For example, a beneficiary who participates in The Emergency Food Assistance Program (TEFAP), or any other USDA service offered by a faith-based organization, must be notified in writing that he or she cannot be discriminated against based on religion, cannot be required to attend or participate in any privately funded religious activities that are offered separate from this federally funded program, and may request an alternative provider, if the beneficiary objects to the religious character of the organization. At the same time, the regulations require that all decisions about federal financial assistance be based solely on merit, without regard to an organization's religious affiliation or lack thereof. The regulations – which are being published after public notice and comment – formally implements Executive Order 13559.
"Here at USDA, we are grateful for partnerships that help us serve Americans in their time of need. Today's regulations not only protect the religious liberties of USDA customers, but also reflect the concerns of our community and faith-based partners," said Norah Deluhery, Director of Faith-based and Neighborhood Partnerships at USDA. "Faith-based organizations support the delivery of critical safety nets that improve quality of life for many. Today's reforms will strengthen these services while reflecting the constitutional principles that define our nation."
For example, these final regulations:
- Require the U.S. Department of Agriculture and other federal agencies to ensure all decisions about federal financial assistance are based solely on merit, without regard to an organization's religious affiliation or lack thereof, and free from political interference, or the appearance of such interference.
- Make clear that faith-based organizations are eligible to participate in USDA social service programs on the same basis as any other private organization.
- Clarify what activities can and cannot be supported with direct federal financial assistance by replacing use of the term "inherently religious activities" with the term "explicitly religious activities" and providing examples of such activities.
- Prohibit organizations that receive federal financial assistance for domestic social service programs from discriminating against beneficiaries, including denying services or benefits, based on religion, a religious belief, a refusal to hold a religious belief, or a refusal to attend or participate in a religious practice.
- Require faith-based organizations that receive direct federal financial assistance to provide written notice of certain protections to beneficiaries of the program.
Specifically, an organization that receives direct federal financial assistance is required to give notice to beneficiaries that—
(1) The organization may not discriminate against a beneficiary based on religion, a religious belief, a refusal to hold a religious belief, or a refusal to attend or participate in a religious practice;
(2) The organization may not require a beneficiary to attend or participate in any explicitly religious activities that are offered by the organization, and any participation by the beneficiaries in those activities must be purely voluntary;
(3) The organization must separate in time or location any privately funded explicitly religious activities from activities supported by direct federal financial assistance;
(4) If a beneficiary or prospective beneficiary objects to the religious character of the organization, the organization will undertake reasonable efforts to identify and refer the beneficiary to an alternative provider to which the beneficiary does not object; and
(5) A beneficiary or prospective beneficiary may report violations of these protections, including any denials of services or benefits, to the federal agency or intermediary administering the program.
While these regulations become effective 30 days after publication in the Federal Register, recipients of federal financial assistance have until 90 days after publication in the Federal Register to satisfy the new obligations in the final regulations. For further information, visit the federal register notice.
USDA is an equal opportunity provider and employer. To file a complaint of discrimination, write: USDA, Office of the Assistant Secretary for Civil Rights, Office of Adjudication, 1400 Independence Ave., SW, Washington, DC 20250-9410 or call (866) 632-9992 (Toll-free Customer Service), (800) 877-8339 (Local or Federal relay), (866) 377-8642 (Relay voice users).