Wyden, Merkley Push Trump Administration to Withdraw Rules Allowing for Taxpayer-Funded Discrimination

Washington, D.C. – Oregon’s U.S. Senators Ron Wyden and Jeff Merkley urged the Trump administration to withdraw proposed rules that would expand federally funded discrimination against members of the LGBTQIA+ community, women, non-religious people and religious minorities.

Wyden, Merkley and other Senate Democrats sent three separate letters to the Departments of Education, Labor and Health and Human Services (HHS). Both rules would eliminate crucial protections that would leave eligible people at risk of losing access to vital taxpayer services simply because of their sex, sexual orientation, gender identity or religious affiliation. The proposed rules are part of the Trump administration’s roll-out of similar proposed rules that would allow for federally sanctioned discrimination at six other federal agencies.

In the letter to Secretary DeVos, the senators outlined how these rules could prevent students from accessing vital services that provide healthcare screenings, transportation, shelter, clothing, new immigrant services and more. Under the proposed regulations, service providers could subject LGBTQIA+ students to anti-LGBTQIA+ hostility or force them to participate in religious activities against their beliefs. Additionally, the Department of Education rule expands religious exemptions for educational institutions and student organizations, giving them license to discriminate against members of the LGBTQIA+ community and women.

“LGBTQIA+ students often feel unsafe during their first year on college campuses,” the senators wrote to Secretary DeVos. “By creating carve-outs for religious educational institutions to avoid creating equitable environments for LGBTQIA+ students and women, the Department is effectively encouraging institutions to turn away from their legal obligations to serve all students.”

In the letter to Secretary Scalia, the senators highlighted how the rule would create barriers to services like job training programs for members of the LGBTQIA+ community and women and make existing forms of workplace harassment and discrimination against those communities worse.

“We are deeply concerned that by expanding religious exemptions, the Administration’s proposed rule would allow faith-based organizations to discriminate against employees because of their sex, sexual orientation, or gender identity,” the senators wrote to Secretary Scalia.“This proposed rule will exacerbate ongoing forms of discrimination and harassment against the LGBTQIA+ community.” 

In the letter to Secretary Azar, the senators explained that the rule would eliminate protections that are vital to ensuring all eligible people—regardless of sex, sexual orientation, gender identity or religious affiliation—can receive vital health services and employment opportunities from “faith-based” providers funded by taxpayers. Specifically, this rule creates barriers to accessing vital services by eliminating requirements to alert beneficiaries of their rights; eliminating requirements to refer beneficiaries to alternate providers in cases where beneficiaries may feel uncomfortable with the religious belief of the provider; and explicitly allowing federally funded service providers to include mandatory religious elements as part of their services. The rule also greenlights employment discrimination by allowing federally funded service providers to make employment decisions based on “acceptance of or adherence to the religious tenets of the organization,” allowing people to be hired or fired on the basis of their sex, including their sexual orientation, gender identity or pregnancy status.

“The proposed rule —developed under the guise of religious liberty—is actually both an attack on religious freedom and yet another step taken by President Trump to greenlight federally funded discrimination,” the senators wrote to Secretary Azar.“Protecting equal access for beneficiaries and potential employees, regardless of their religious beliefs and identities, is and should always remain the Department’s number one priority. We demand the Department put the American people first and withdraw the proposed rule,” continued the senators, later in the letter.

When the proposed rules were first announced in January, Wyden released a statement in opposition. 

These letters also build on the longstanding efforts of Wyden and Merkley advocating for federal civil rights protections for LGBTQIA+ Americans. The Equality Act, introduced by Merkley and supported by Wyden, would codify explicit protections for LGBTQIA+ Americans in public accommodations, employment, housing and more. Wyden and Merkley also joined Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, D-N.Y., to introduce the Every Child Deserves a Family Act to end discrimination against LGBTQIA+ adoptive parents, foster parents and children in the federal foster care system.

In addition to Wyden and Merkley, other senators who signed the letter to Secretary Scalia include U.S. Sens. Patty Murray, D-Wash., Tammy Baldwin, D-Wisc., Chris Van Hollen, D-Md., Ben Cardin, D-Md., Sheldon Whitehouse, D-R.I., Richard Blumenthal. D-Conn., Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., Kamala Harris, D-Calif., Amy Klobuchar, D-Minn., Mazie Hirono, D-Hawaii, Dick Durbin, D-Ill., Cory Booker, D-N.J., and Kirsten Gillibrand, D-N.Y.

In addition to Wyden and Merkley, other senators who signed the letter to Secretary DeVos include U.S. Sens. Patty Murray, D-Wash., Tammy Baldwin, D-Wisc., Chris Van Hollen, D-Md., Ben Cardin, D-Md., Sheldon Whitehouse, D-R.I., Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn., Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., Kamala Harris, D-Calif., Amy Klobuchar, D-Minn., Mazie Hirono, D-Hawaii,  Sherrod Brown, D-Ohio, Ed Markey, D-Mass., and Jack Reed, D-R.I.

In addition to Wyden and Merkley, other senators who signed the letter to Secretary Azar include U.S. Sens. Tammy Baldwin, D-Wisc., Chris Van Hollen, D-Md., Ben Cardin, D-Md., Sheldon Whitehouse, D-R.I., Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn., Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., Kamala Harris, D-Calif., Amy Klobuchar, D-Minn., Mazie Hirono, D-Hawaii, Sherrod Brown, D-Ohio,  Ed Markey, D-Mass., Cory Booker, D-N.J., Kirsten Gillibrand, D-N.Y., Bob Menendez, D-N.J., Tammy Duckworth, D-Ill., Jeanne Shaheen, D-N.H., Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., Tim Kaine, D-Va., Tina Smith, D-Minn.

A digital copy of the letter to Labor Secretary Scalia is available here.

A digital copy of the letter to Education Secretary DeVos is available here.

A digital copy of the letter to HHS Secretary Azar is available here.

A web version of this release is available here.