How Federal Agencies Are Working to Advance Important Civil Rights Protections

The Biden administration recently finalized a number of regulations and issued critical guidance that have important implications for communities across the nation. These include regulations and guidance interpreting and enforcing landmark civil rights laws and protections that were top priorities for The Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights and that the coalition fought hard to achieve.

The federal regulatory process has profound impacts on our lives — from the quality of the air we breathe, to our access to health care, to job conditions and protections, to data and technology privacy, and to advancements in equity and civil and human rights, to name just some of its implications. Central to our coalition’s work is ensuring that government regulations and guidance reflect the lived experiences of the communities we represent. As a result, we often participate in the regulatory process by weighing in directly with the government as it develops and proposes new regulations and guidance.

In November 2020, The Leadership Conference and our task forces released a comprehensive list of priority initiatives (including regulatory and other administrative action) that represented a path forward for our country in advancing and protecting civil and human rights. We are proud to see historic gains on many fronts — with still much more left to be done.

Here are some recent announcements you should know about:

On May 1, the Department of Health and Human Services released a final rule — the first update to Section 504 regulations since 1977 — to clarify and strengthen civil rights protections against the pervasive health care discrimination disabled people experience, including disabled women and gender-expansive people of color. The updated regulations will advance protections against discrimination and ableism and increase accessibility for people with disabilities in their encounters with health care systems and social services.

  • Joint comments from more than 70 organizations

On April 30, the Department of Health and Human Services released a final rule to affirm nondiscrimination in HHS-funded programs and services. The 2016 rules established clear nondiscrimination protections for individuals on the basis of age, disability, sex, race, color, national origin, religion, gender identity, or sexual orientation and clarified that grant recipients must treat as valid the marriages of same-sex couples. The Trump administration’s notice of nonenforcement and 2021 modified Grants Rule left substantial gaps in explicit federal protections against discrimination on the basis of religion or sex (including sexual orientation, gender identity, or sex characteristics) in a range of government-funded services.

On April 26, the Department of Health and Human Services’ Office for Civil Rights released a final rule implementing Section 1557 of the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act (ACA) that promotes nondiscrimination in health care. The Leadership Conference and our Health Care Task Force are strong supporters of Section 1557, which was a major milestone in the  efforts to ensure that everyone in America has access to quality, affordable health insurance coverage and health care, and we have advocated for its full and complete implementation since its enactment in 2010. The Obama-Biden administration finalized long-awaited regulations implementing Section 1557 in 2016. Unfortunately, in 2020, the Trump administration finalized new regulations drastically rewriting the Obama-era regulations and purporting to severely limit Section 1557’s application. The new rule is a significant step toward restoring Section 1557’s impact and protections, particularly for those experiencing discrimination due to the intersection of multiple identities, and will help to address disparities in health care access and outcomes.

  • Joint comments from more than 100 organizations
  • Joint letter from 260 organizations urging release of the final rule
  • Leadership Conference response to the final rule

On April 23, the Department of Labor released a final rule updating the salary threshold under which workers are covered by overtime protections. This update will be especially impactful for workers of color and low-income workers and will go a long way toward correctly restoring the value of one of the most precious resources workers have — their time.

On April 23, the Department of Labor released a final rule to protect the millions of workers who are saving for retirement by requiring financial advisors who give retirement investment advice to act in the best interest of their clients. The Leadership Conference has long supported efforts to secure these protections.

On April 22, the Department of Health and Human Services’ Office for Civil Rights released a final rule that will improve confidentiality and protect against criminalization for patients receiving reproductive health care.

On April 22, the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services released rules that aim to improve access to Medicaid programs — which are essential for ensuring that all people have access to health care, including people with low incomes and people of color — and a strong nursing home staffing rule that recognizes improvements that must be made for nursing home residents and workers, many of whom are women and people of color.

  • Joint comments from 75 organizations re: minimum staffing standards in nursing homes
  • Joint comments from 74 organizations and individuals re: Medicaid access

On April 19, the Department of Education finalized a range of critical updates to its rule interpreting and enforcing Title IX — the landmark civil rights law that protects students from sex-based discrimination. These revisions restore and reinforce vital civil rights protections for all students to access school spaces and programs free from sex discrimination. Among other things, the new rule repeals a restrictive sex harassment rule and clarifies protections for survivors, pregnant and parenting students, and LGBTQ+ students. Although there is continued need for a rule that makes clear Title IX’s protections for transgender, nonbinary, and intersex students in athletics, this rule is a powerful step forward for all students.

  • Joint comments from more than 40 organizations
  • Joint response to the final rule from more than 20 organizations

On April 14, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission released a final rule implementing the Pregnant Workers Fairness Act (PWFA). The Leadership Conference, its Employment Task Force, parents, pregnant people, and working people across the country fought for years to pass the PWFA into law. The new rule will provide important clarity for both workers and employers and will fulfill the landmark law’s purpose of ensuring people with known limitations related to pregnancy, childbirth, or related medical conditions can remain healthy and working.

  • Comments from The Leadership Conference and its Employment Task Force co-chairs

Ensuring that technology, including automated decision-making tools like artificial intelligence (AI), serves the best interests of each of us has been a top priority of The Leadership Conference for years. In March, the Office of Management and Budget (OMB) finalized an important guidance memo on federal agency implementation of the Biden administration’s AI executive order — putting rights-protecting principles of the White House’s historic AI Bill of Rights into practice across agencies and advancing civil rights protections in AI deployment at federal agencies. The Leadership Conference, its Center for Civil Rights and Technology, and nearly 40 organizations submitted comments to OMB, and we applauded the release on March 28 of the final guidance.

On the same day, OMB released revised federal standards for the collection of race and ethnicity data, allowing for federal data that better reflect the country’s diversity. The new OMB standards, which had not been updated since 1997, will now give the federal government, policymakers, and civil rights organizations a more accurate picture of how civil rights compliance and other programs are being utilized across different racial and ethnic groups. These changes were the focus of a decades-long fight for The Leadership Conference and its Census Task Force, with movement stalling at OMB after the 2016 presidential election. The Leadership Conference submitted comments to OMB from more than 120 organizations and applauded the revised standards. We also urge OMB and the Census Bureau to engage in research and testing to address the concerns noted in our statement and look forward to seeing robust community engagement by OMB and the Census Bureau leading to the successful implementation of the standards.

Robust and thoughtful guidance is a critical tool for the effective enforcement of anti-discrimination law. On April 29, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission released final guidance on harassment in the workplace. A version of this guidance was originally proposed in January 2017 but was blocked by the Trump administration. The guidance is intended to promote strong enforcement of the federal laws prohibiting workplace harassment and to help workers of color, older workers, LGBTQ+ workers, immigrant workers, and other vulnerable workers feel safe and respected on the job. The new guidance updates, consolidates, and replaces earlier guidance documents and, as the commission noted, reflects “consideration of the robust public input that it received after the guidance was posted for public comment in fall 2023.” The Leadership Conference weighed in on the proposed guidance in comments submitted last November.

There is also important and ongoing work happening by federal agencies to implement civil rights provisions of executive orders, including this administration’s executive order promoting access to voting. On February 26, for example, the Department of Education released a toolkit to promote civic engagement and voter registration activities for students, which The Leadership Conference advocated for and applauded.

In addition, the U.S. Sentencing Commission, while part of the judicial branch, also recently voted unanimously to limit the use of conduct for which a person was acquitted in federal court from being used in calculating a sentence range under the federal guidelines. The Leadership Conference called on the commission to eliminate this practice because we’ve long believed that acquitted conduct sentencing is an inherently flawed and unfair practice that amplifies racial injustices.

More to do:

This critical federal regulatory work isn’t over, and we continue to urge the administration to finalize additional regulations. In addition to the recent Title IX announcement, we are still calling on President Biden and the administration to provide further clarification for inclusive protections in athletics and to robustly enforce Title IX to ensure all students — including transgender, nonbinary, and intersex student athletes — realize the law’s full protections.

And along with nearly 300 organizations, we also recently called on the administration to immediately release a rule to carry out the Fair Housing Act. The proposed rule, known as “affirmatively furthering fair housing,” addresses the lasting impact of our country’s history of housing segregation. It will promote safer neighborhoods, more affordable and accessible homes, fresh air and clean water, good public transportation, living-wage jobs, quality health care, healthy foods, affordable credit, and well-resourced schools.

As we continue to work toward the goal of a more open and just society, participation in these processes will be critical to protecting and advancing the civil and human rights of all people.