New anti-LGBT federal rule challenged in court

A coalition of seven organizations is challenging a new federal rule that allegedly infringes upon the rights of LGBT individuals and others to access federally-funded social services in a bias-free manner. 

Pushed through by the outgoing Trump Administration, the new rule lifts requirements that federally-funded social-services recipients be notified of their right to be free from discrimination, to not have to attend religious programming, and to receive a referral for an alternate provider if so desired.

Having to provide the notifications also served as an important reminder to staff and volunteers at service agencies to keep their religious beliefs separate from their work, according to the lawsuit.

The lawsuit, filed January 19, has been assigned to U.S. District Judge Lewis A. Kaplan of the Southern District of New York. Defendants include the federal Departments of Agriculture; Education; Health and Human Services; Homeland Security, Housing and Urban Development; Justice; Labor; and Veterans Affairs. 

Plaintiffs include American Atheists; Ark of Freedom; Freedom from Religion Foundation; Hindu American Foundation; MAZON: A Jewish Response to Hunger; New York City Gay and Lesbian Anti-Violence Project; and Services & Advocacy for GLBT Elders.

According to their 73-page lawsuit, the new rule makes it harder for marginalized individuals to access essential social services, such as food and shelter. The Trump administration’s rollback of a more equitable 2016 rule was “arbitrary and capricious.” The Trump administration provided no reasonable explanation for the new rule, failed to account for its harms, and failed to consider obvious alternatives to the rule it finalized — all in violation of the federal Administrative Procedure Act.

The lawsuit quotes a trans man, who stated: “I would try to access the church food banks; it was difficult. Like, you go in there, and they just have this look on their face of like disgust. You really don’t wanna deal with them. You don’t wanna deal with that. You’re already emotionally defeated going into that situation. And then to get all of that. I was like I’d rather turn around and go back, figure this out a whole ‘nother way.”

Moreover, the lawsuit notes that some LGBT domestic-violence victims have been told by non-secular service providers they should expect violence because same-sex relationships are inherently wrong.

“If community members do not know they are entitled to services in a religiously neutral context, as [a prior rule] required, some will continue to receive services in circumstances that exacerbate their trauma and put further stress on their emotional state. Others will go without needed services. Both options increase harm,” the lawsuit asserts.

In a statement, the plaintiffs said “Thanks to the Trump administration’s rollback, faith-based organizations no longer have to inform recipients of taxpayer-funded services that they cannot be discriminated against or be forced to attend religious activities when accessing services. Without this much-needed information, already-vulnerable populations are likely to fear discrimination, needlessly opt to take part in religious activities that contradict their own beliefs or demean their identities, or forgo assistance altogether. We’re taking our fight against the Trump administration’s unlawful rollback to court so that those in need of help can continue to get it without fear of discrimination or unwanted proselytization.”

The lawsuit seeks a judicial order to set aside the new rule and revert back to a prior Obama-era rule. Democracy Forward, Americans United for Separation of Church and State, and Lambda Legal represent the plaintiffs. As of press time, attorneys for the Biden administration hadn’t entered an appearance in the litigation. A Biden spokesperson couldn’t be reached for comment.

Adrian Shanker, executive director of Bradbury-Sullivan LGBT Community Center, praised the plaintiffs. “LGBTQ Pennsylvanians deserve equitable access to housing, health and social services,” Shanker said, in an email. “But the previous president was committed to further-marginalizing and directly harming LGBTQ people. President Biden’s inauguration is a new beginning for civil rights. But it will take lots of effort to undue the harms of the Trump administration. Thankfully, courageous organizations have stepped up with this important lawsuit to block Trump’s eleventh-hour attempt to rollback LGBTQ rights.” 

Margaret A. Downey, president of the Freethought Society, based in Chester County, Pa., also commended the plaintiffs. “Throughout history, religious discrimination has demonstrated that when allowed to flourish — the innate bigotry will separate and endanger people,” Downey told PGN. “If the United States is to heal from the disturbing divisive atmosphere that has existed for far too long, social service organizations must be held to a higher standard. There is no place for a religious test when people are hungry, homeless and hurting.”

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Tim Cwiek has been writing for PGN since the 1970s. He holds a bachelor's degree in history from West Chester State University. In 2013, he received a Sigma Delta Chi Investigative Reporting Award from the Society of Professional Journalists for his reporting on the Nizah Morris case. Cwiek was the first reporter for an LGBT media outlet to win an award from that national organization. He's also received awards from the National Lesbian and Gay Journalists Association, the National Newspaper Association, and the Keystone Press.