The Department of Health and Human Services plans to unlawfully stop enforcing nondiscrimination protections for LGBTQ Americans, a lawsuit filed Thursday claims.
The suit centers on a “notice of nonenforcement” and a proposed rule issued by the Trump administration in November that would reverse a 2016 Obama-era rule prohibiting discrimination in HHS-funded grant programs and permit federally funded organizations to turn people away claiming conflicts with religious beliefs. The suit was filed by civil rights group Lambda Legal and nonprofit Democracy Forward on behalf of three LGBTQ advocacy groups — True Colors United, SAGE and Family Equality.
“In conflict with HHS’s established rules and policy, Defendants have engaged in systematic efforts to undermine the civil rights of, and non-discrimination protections for, LGBTQ people in the United States,” the suit states. “HHS’s decision to walk away entirely from enforcing the still-valid 2016 Grants Rule is a glaring example.”
According to the lawsuit, there’s about $500 billion in HHS grant money at stake. This is the amount the department administers to fund organizations across the country who provide a variety of services, including child placement, homeless shelters and elder care.
The HHS Office of Public Affairs told NBC News it would “not comment on pending litigation.” However, in its November statement regarding the notice of nonenforcement, the department said it is “committed to fully enforcing the civil rights laws passed by Congress” and stated that this proposal would “better align” HHS grant regulations with “federal statutes, eliminating regulatory burden, including burden on the free exercise of religion.”
Civil rights advocates say the November measure is another example of the Trump administration prioritizing “religious freedom” at the expense of the rights of lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer Americans. In fact, a report issued in November by the bipartisan U.S. Commission on Civil Rights claimed the administration is “undoing decades of civil and human rights progress” — especially when it comes to LGBTQ issues.
Puneet Cheema, a Lambda Legal attorney working on the suit, said this HHS policy reversal will affect the most vulnerable within the LGBTQ community, notably youth and older adults. The current coronavirus pandemic, she added, will only make the impact more devastating.
“Youth who are experiencing homelessness, seniors who have difficulties accessing health care generally,” she said, “they may have heightened need for care and heightened vulnerability in this epidemic.”
LGBTQ youth are overrepresented in the foster care system, and they are 120 percent more likely to experience homelessness, according to a study from Chapin Hall at the University of Chicago. Foster care and shelters are two essential services often funded by HHS grants.
“LGBTQ youth already more vulnerable because of discrimination,” Cheema said. “They have a right to get services that are free of discrimination. They have a right to shelter without being subject to verbal harassment. They have a right to loving and affirming families, all of which is at risk.”
"Defendants have engaged in systematic efforts to undermine the civil rights of, and non-discrimination protections for, LGBTQ people in the United States."
Dylan Waguespack is the public policy and external affairs director at True Colors United, a national organization assisting LGBTQ homeless youth. Waguespack told NBC News that when HHS announced it would no longer enforce the nondiscrimination rule, the organization decided to take action by joining Thursday’s lawsuit.
“We immediately recognized it could cause a great deal of harm to young people,” he said, noting the department’s proposed rule could make a young person less willing to report discrimination or prompt them to leave a shelter altogether.
Echoing Cheema, he also noted the particularly perilous situation these vulnerable young people are in amid the current public health crisis.
“Making young people less likely to come inside is particularly dangerous right now when we are looking at this pandemic and expecting an increase in young people coming in to use these services because of home situations becoming more and more unstable and schools and campuses shutting down,” he said.
HHS’s decision may also negatively affect older LGBTQ adults, many of whom rely on services funded by the department, such as meal delivery or transportation.
“LGBTQ older adults are already more economically insecure because of the lifetime of discrimination they have experienced,” Cheema explained. “They have a right to age with dignity and HHS is denying them that.”
Cheema said HHS’s November nonenforcement notice and rule proposal is yet “another example of the Trump administration turning its back on LGBTQ people” and “flouting the rule of law.”
“It’s infuriating,” she added.