(The Center Square) – A new Senate bill would open the door for religious organizations to secure access to federal funding for a range of social service efforts.
Currently, faith-based groups remain in uncertainty over whether their beliefs and religious activities preclude them from receiving federal taxpayer funds or leave them vulnerable to lawsuits and clawbacks of those funds. The rules on who and how funds can be used change from administration to administration as agencies tweak regulations.
US Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., introduced the “Lifting Local Communities Act” to codify and clarify that faith-based groups can receive federal funds, “ensuring that these protections are clearly stated and enshrined in federal law rather than subject to the back and forth of rulemaking.”
“Churches and other faith-based organizations play a vital role in lifting up their communities,” Rubio said. “These organizations should not be discriminated against because of their faith or held back by bureaucratic red tape. This bill would ensure that faith-based organizations do not have to compromise their beliefs to provide critical social services to those in need.”
The bill is aimed at removing uncertainty for religious groups who would like to apply for grant funding to help with services like job training, drug abuse and recovery, anti-poverty measures, and more.
Notably, the bill would ensure “religious providers will not be prohibited from providing religious services and using religious language at the same time and location as federally-funded services.”
For example, a religious group would now be allowed to offer a prayer or spiritual encouragement as they feed the homeless, something that was previously not allowed. Also, groups like Alcoholics Anonymous would not be limited from some federal funding because of their focus on the need for a “higher power” in their program.
The bill comes after the Supreme Court ruled in Carson v. Makin earlier this year, a case that kicked off when the state of Maine started a tuition assistance program for rural areas that did not have public schools. The program in question, however, said outright that state funds could not be used at religious private schools.
A Maine family sued the state arguing religious schools should not be discriminated against and that they should be able to use the funding for religious schooling if they preferred. They argued that the program violates the Free Exercise Clause of the Constitution.
The Supreme Court ruled in their favor, saying that states could not prohibit schools from participating in taxpayer-funded programs simply because of their religious affiliation. As The Center Square previously reported, the high court referred to Trinity Lutheran Church of Columbia v. Comer, a 2016 ruling in favor of a religiously-affiliated school that had been denied state grant funding for a playground improvement.
These cases have added clarity to previously murky waters and broadened the legal footing for these groups to apply for grants, and the new legislation would codify it if passed.
“Religious organizations should be allowed to serve their communities without being punished on account of their convictions,” said US Sen. Josh Hawley, R-Mo. “This bill will shield organizations helping the most vulnerable from left-wing activists seeking to drive them out of the public square.”
Proponents of the bill argued that it is about defending religious freedoms and protecting them from discrimination, a topic that has been front and center in several high-profile court cases in recent years.
“This bill would codify the right of faith-based organizations to do their work without the government threatening their religious liberties,” said US Sen. Cindy Hyde-Smith, R-Mo.
The bill has received endorsements from several related groups such as Family Research Council, Faith & Freedom Coalition, and First Liberty Institute, who argue that helping people should trump politics.
“Faith-based social service providers provide valuable services to the most vulnerable in our communities, from battered women to neglected children,” said Kassie Dulin, director of government affairs for First Liberty Institute. “This bill will ensure they can continue to serve freely, without fear of being penalized for their religious beliefs. We applaud Senator Rubio’s excellent efforts to protect these service providers’ religious freedom.”