Attorneys with the American Center for Law and Justice (ACLJ) filed comments with the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD), urging officials there to support a proposed rule to stop public housing managers from confiscating Bibles and other religious literature from facilities under the department’s control.
“We believe the rule should be implemented fully as the department has proposed,” ACLJ Executive Director Jordan Sekulow said in an April 13 letter to HUD made available to The Epoch Times.
The proposed rule is titled “Equal Participation of Faith-Based Organizations in HUD Programs and Activities: Implementation of Executive Order 13831.”
Otherwise, “religious organizations that currently, or in the future may, participate in department programs would continue to be targeted and burdened unequally merely because of their faith-based nature,” Sekulow wrote.
“The rule would serve to bring the department’s implementation of its programs in line with the requirements of federal law, including the First Amendment and the Religious Freedom Restoration Act,” he said.
“The rule would also serve to further the ability of the federal government to provide equal opportunity to those organizations that faithfully serve our American society through social welfare programs,” Sekulow added.
The proposed rule would implement within HUD President Donald Trump’s May 4, 2017, executive order that directed federal agencies to “vigorously enforce federal law’s robust protections for religious freedom.”
Trump’s action was intended to cancel a 2010 directive from President Barack Obama that ACLJ said in its letter to HUD “restricted the ability of faith-based organizations to equally serve American communities by burdening faith-based providers with extra notice and written requirements.”
Sekulow said some property management firms operated under HUD have confiscated Bibles and related materials from housing complexes, even those donated by residents, and prevented them from exercising their First Amendment freedoms at public housing facilities.
Since Trump issued the 2017 order, other federal departments have adopted rules similar to the one now being considered by HUD, but the housing department has been slow to act.
A HUD spokesman told The Epoch Times on April 10, “We are looking into this and do not want to comment further until more information is gathered.”
The spokesman added that current HUD regulations “specifically prohibit housing providers from limiting the use of their services or facilities because of protected class, including religion, and that would extend to a commonly shared library in a housing development.
“Further, if a housing provider makes its facilities available for residents to use for secular activities, it must make its facilities available for residents to use for religious activities, such as Bible study, religious ceremonies, holiday displays, and celebrations.”
A total of 2,444 public comments were received by HUD as of the beginning of business on April 13, which was the deadline for submitting comments.
The ACLJ said it received nearly 121,000 signatures on its petition encouraging HUD to implement the Trump executive order in its entirety.
Gene Kapp, an ACLJ spokesman, told The Epoch Times on April 13 that attorneys for the Washington-based foundation are preparing demand letters to a property management firm, but he declined to identify the company.
Trump’s 2017 executive order prompted extensive advocacy and lobbying actions from supporters of the measure such as ACLJ, as well as from opponents, such as the Freedom From Religion Foundation (FFRF).
The FFRF’s co-presidents, Annie Laurie Gaylor and Dan Barker, told HUD in an April 7 letter that the organization “strongly opposes this effort to lessen protections for HUD-funded service beneficiaries who object to receiving services from a religious service provider. No one should ever be forced to enter a religious environment, to endure religious rituals, or to support a religious organization in order to receive government-funded services.”
Gaylor and Barker said implementation of the proposed HUD rule would create “a dangerous mixture of religion and government and sacrifice the well-being of service providers for no good reason.”
They were especially concerned about ending a requirement from the Obama rule that required religious service providers to help those objecting to their presence to find alternatives.
“This change is unconscionable and unethical, removing a minimal responsibility on religious service providers, but losing an important protection for beneficiaries,” Gaylor and Barker wrote.
The ACLJ disagreed with FRFF’s claim regarding repeal of the alternative services requirement, saying, “Religious organizations are treated unequally. They’re being forced to post disclaimers and referrals to non-religious entities (similar to the forced speech disclosures we defeated at the Supreme Court for pro-life pregnancy centers).”
Contact Mark Tapscott at Mark.Tapscott@epochtimes.nyc