Faith played a central role in the founding of America. Many settlers and immigrants came to America to escape Old World persecution of their religious beliefs. Alexander Hamilton highlighted the vital role of religious liberty, stating, “Remember civil and religious liberty always go together; if the foundation of the one be sapped, the other will fall of course.”
As we celebrate Religious Freedom Day, it is a time to recall that, from its earliest days, our nation has explicitly protected religious freedom. Recent rules issued by the Department of Labor and the Trump Administration strengthen that protection so that all Americans can practice their faith and work with the federal government.
But the tradition of religious liberty in America has recently come under scrutiny and threat. The Department of Labor’s commonsense rulemakings in December have drawn unfair criticism. Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi called one of our rules an “act of cruelty,” while House Education and Labor Committee Chairman Rep. Bobby Scott accused the Labor Department of permitting discrimination “under the guise of religious freedom.”
Incendiary comments like these show the effort to limit religious organizations from collaborating with the federal government to deliver services like any other federal contractor. Sentiments of opponents show their desire to enforce a higher burden on religious organizations because of their beliefs. That was the standard of the previous Administration and it was wrong. The rules the Department of Labor issued last month simply ensure fair treatment of religious organizations.
The first of the two rules tell religious organizations that they don’t have to give up their religious identity to be a federal contractor. They can qualify for an exemption that permits them to hire employees who align with their mission and beliefs. That means a religious university, for example, can require the faculty and staff they hire to agree to uphold the religious values of the university. Religious employers should be equally able to ally with the government to provide beneficial services for the American people, such as job training programs and medical research, without having to compromise deeply held religious beliefs.
Similarly, another rule ensures religious organizations are treated fairly when it comes to government grants. This action, which we took simultaneously with eight other federal agencies, reverses a rule that targeted organizations of faith with specific regulatory burdens, including requirements for them to post a notice about their religious character and make referrals to non-religious organizations if anyone objected to their faith-based nature. Religious organizations should be able to provide services and support to their communities without an additional burden from extra hoops to jump through and a government-mandated warning label.
These rules reflect the Trump Administration’s broader efforts to engage faith communities and uphold religious liberty. Supporters of our national tradition and those fighting to protect religious liberty will be watching who works to defend or weaken these rules in the years to come.
Mark Zelden is the director of the U.S. Department of Labor’s Centers for Faith and Opportunity Initiatives.