This morning at a conference in the White House Rose Garden with conservative and religious leaders, President Trump unveiled and signed an executive order on religious freedom that he says fulfills many of his campaign promises to be a champion of religious freedom. But many social conservative leaders are slamming today’s order as “meaningless,” or worse, “harmful.”
The text of today’s order does three things:
- It directs the Treasury Department not to penalize any church or religious organization that speaks out on political issues or supports a political candidate.
- It directs the Departments of Treasury, Labor, and Health & Human Services to “consider issuing amended regulations” that address the conscience-based objections of groups like the Little Sisters of the Poor to paying for abortion coverage under Obamacare.
- It directs the Attorney General to guide federal agencies in protecting religious liberty.
Some background: Donald Trump won over many skeptical social conservatives during the campaign by promising that his administration would staunchly defend religious liberty. Vice President Mike Pence has staked his credibility in the conservative community on getting Trump to ally with social conservatives.
In February, a draft executive order was leaked, showing the Trump administration planned to reverse the attacks on religious freedom of the Obama administration and implement strong religious liberty protections. After a sabotage campaign from Trump’s liberal daughter Ivanka and son-in-law Jared Kushner, Trump backtracked and the draft order was discarded.
Many conservative leaders are thoroughly unimpressed with today’s order.
Ryan T. Anderson of the Heritage Foundation wrote:
[W]hat Trump issued today is rather weak. All it includes is general language about the importance of religious liberty, saying the executive branch “will honor and enforce” existing laws and instructing the Department of Justice to “issue guidance” on existing law; directives to the Department of the Treasury to be lenient in the enforcement of the Johnson Amendment; and directives to the secretaries of the Treasury, Labor, and Health and Human Services (HHS) to “consider issuing amended regulations” to “address conscience-based objections” to the HHS contraception mandate.
But the federal government should be honoring and enforcing our religious liberty laws anyway, legislation is required to actually address the Johnson Amendment—which isn’t the prime priority on religious liberty—and the Supreme Court has already unanimously instructed the federal government to resolve the case of Little Sisters of the Poor and other HHS mandate cases.
By contrast, the February draft—a version of which was originally planned for today according to media reports—made good on many of the president’s promises to protect religious liberty from government penalties.
Princeton Professor Robert George, a leading advocate for religious freedom in the US and internationally, called the order “a betrayal”:
The religious liberty executive order is meaningless. No substantive protections for conscience. A betrayal. Ivanka and Jared won. We lost. https://t.co/Xn94KWTKPX
— Robert P. George (@McCormickProf) May 4, 2017
David French of National Review went so far as to call the order “dangerous,” writing:
Let’s dispense first with the vague and sweeping promise to “protect and vigorously promote religious liberty.” That’s a nice sentiment, but it’s proven only by actions, and if the order itself is considered one of those actions, then it’s self-refuting. The order doesn’t do anything “vigorously,” and it doesn’t “protect” anything at all. …
[T]he order is just as notable for what it omits as for what it reportedly includes. While the Johnson Amendment is important, its threat to religious freedom pales in comparison to the comprehensive assault on religious organizations on federally funded campuses, the threats to the religious freedom of Christian educational institutions, and the attack on the rights of conscience of dissenters from the new orthodoxies on marriage, the family, and even the definition of male and female. What will the administration do to protect religious freedom when the entire cultural Left mobilizes against it? We still don’t know.
The National Organization for Marriage said Trump “failed to deliver” and “punted” the issue to the Department of Justice:
President Trump has repeatedly promised that he would do everything in his power to protect the religious liberty of people of faith and faith-based groups. It was a major factor in his election. However, an executive order he signed today, while containing some helpful provisions for pastors and religious medical providers, falls far short of what is needed to protect people of faith from governmental persecution set in motion by the Obama administration. Instead, he has punted the issue to the Department of Justice which, he says, will develop new rules to protect the religious liberty rights of people and groups.
This is the second time that President Trump has backed away from signing a comprehensive order protecting religious liberty after LGBT groups complained about the proposed actions.
Other conservative leaders have taken a more nuanced view, calling it an important first step, but not the last step. Kelly Shackelford of the First Liberty Institute said today’s order is “just the beginning” and shows “where [Trump’s] heart is.” Ralph Reed of the Faith and Freedom Coalition generally agreed, saying the order is “just the first bite at the apple, not the last.” CatholicVote.org is preparing a “Thank You Trump” campaign, urging supporters to send a postcard to Trump thanking him for the order, but they still say it is an incomplete first step.
The consensus is that Trump’s campaign promises are only partially fulfilled on this issue. Rest assured that The National Pulse will be here to analyze the developments to come.
Photo credit: American Life League via Flickr, CC BY-NC 2.0