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HHS Rescinds Trump-Era Religious Exemption Practice

Secretary Xavier Becerra
U.S. Department of Health and Human Services Secretary Xavier Becerra/Getty Images

The department will revert back to examining potential exemptions on a case-by-case basis.

The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services announced Thursday that it was rescinding what it called "inappropriate" and "overly broad" religious exemption waivers made by the Trump administration.

Advocates say the waivers allowed states and child welfare agencies to discriminate based on sexual orientation, gender identity, and religion.

The department, in a press release, said it was reestablishing a long-held practice of providing exemptions on a case-by-case basis -- as necessary and as is legally required by the Religious Freedom and Restoration Act. It said that it reaffirmed its commitment to provide its services without discrimination -- including not discriminating against LGBTQ+ people in taxpayer-paid initiatives.

"Today's action supports the bedrock American principle and a core mission of our department -- to ensure Americans have access to quality health and human services. Our action ensures we are best prepared to protect every American's right to be free of discrimination," HHS Secretary Xavier Becerra said.

"With the large number of discrimination claims before us, we owe it to all who come forward to act, whether to review, investigate or take appropriate measures to protect their rights. At HHS, we treat any violation of civil rights or religious freedoms seriously," he added.

In Thursday's announcement, the department said that under the Trump administration it had issued exemptions in South Carolina, Texas, and Michigan that HHS now has determined were inappropriate.

The news follows a proposal to rescind a similar Department of Labor religious exemption policy.

"Congress enacted the Religious Freedom Restoration Act to protect the free exercise of religion, particularly for religious minorities. It was never intended to allow discriminatory practices that undermine religious freedom," said Maggie Siddiqi, senior director of Religion and Faith at the Center for American Progress, in a statement. Siddiqi said the previous administration misused the religious exemptions.

"In South Carolina, for example, the waiver enabled a Protestant foster care agency to turn away prospective foster parents who were Catholic and Jewish. Far from protecting religious liberty, these waivers subverted this fundamental freedom," Siddiqi explained. "Today's actions by the Biden administration will ensure no child is denied a loving foster home simply because of who their prospective parents are, who they love, or what they believe."

JoDee Winterhof, senior vice president for policy and political affairs for the Human Rights Campaign, said in a statement that the move was a significant step in stopping discriminatory actions against LGBTQ+ people and religious minorities in federal agency programs.

"Putting these guidelines into practice will help ensure that everyday people who need to access important social services won't be turned away on the basis of their sexual orientation, gender identity, or religious affiliation," Winterhof said.

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