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Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue Commits to Religious Freedom

U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) Secretary Sonny Perdue is committing his agency to religious freedom following President Donald Trump’s executive order last week to “vigorously enforce Federal law’s robust protections for religious freedom.”

A policy statement released by Perdue this week states:

Today, I want to reestablish this Department’s commitment to safeguarding every American’s First Amendment rights, particularly the right to free speech and the right to free religious exercise. USDA is committed to protecting both. I expect each and every USDA employee to uphold their fellow Americans’ First Amendment freedoms. Whether we are inspecting private businesses for compliance with food safety laws or protecting our public lands for recreation, cultivation, and preservation, we must set the example of our Nation’s highest ideals. Doing so is not optional, and it is not discretionary: It is one of the crucial reasons why we exist.

“Freedom of expression flourishes in a climate of mutual respect and tolerance,” Perdue added.

Family Research Council (FRC) president Tony Perkins and his staff say Perdue is doing his part to ensure a “new day for religious freedom.”

“For Christians, who’ve lived under the anti-faith cloud of Obama, it’s encouraging to see Secretary Perdue move so quickly to communicate that the USDA is under new management,” FRC explains, noting the case of Don Vander Boon, a Christian and private owner of the West Michigan Beef Company, who was threatened two years ago with a shut-down of his business by USDA inspectors because his break room contained an article promoting traditional marriage mixed in with others about the Supreme Court’s same-sex marriage decision (see video below).

Vander Boon said USDA inspectors – who worked daily in his meat-packing facility – removed the article about traditional marriage and confronted him with it in his office, threatening to pull out of his facility, a situation that would immediately cause his business to shut down.

The case is still awaiting resolution, but FRC states Perdue’s newly released statement “will lead to unequivocal actions to protect and preserve religious freedom.”

FRC’s Perkins – who referred to Trump’s executive order as “a significant first step to defending religious liberty” – is also hoping Perdue’s statement will serve as encouragement to other conservatives and constitutionalists who are apprehensive about the order, given the situation that a more robust draft of the order was first leaked to leftwing media in February.

The Nation reported the February draft would have “create[d] wholesale exemptions for people and organizations who claim religious objections to same-sex marriage, premarital sex, abortion, and trans identity.”

Alliance Defending Freedom (ADF) – which has represented the Vander Boon family – expressed concern about how much Trump’s final executive order would actually accomplish.

“First, no specific relief is offered to families like the Vander Boons in Michigan, who were threatened with the effective closure of their family-run business for simply expressing a religious point of view on marriage that differed from that of the federal government,” ADF senior counsel Gregory Baylor originally noted in a statement reported by Christian News.

On Thursday, however, ADF senior counsel Jeremy Tedesco said in a statement, “Alliance Defending Freedom is encouraged that Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue has issued a policy statement declaring his commitment to protect ‘the right to free speech and the right to free religious exercise’ for Americans who interact with the USDA.”

ADF continues:

We are hopeful that this commitment will translate into immediate relief for our clients, Donald and Ellen Vander Boon, who are facing ongoing censorship of their religious speech at the hands of USDA officials. It is a grave injustice when the government forces Americans like the Vander Boons to choose between running a business and expressing their religious beliefs. Secretary Perdue can act now to correct this injustice for the Vander Boons and Americans like them who work with the USDA, and we hope that he will.

FRC notes that it is at the cabinet level that Trump’s executive order will have its greatest impact.

For example, the order authorizes Attorney General Jeff Sessions to issue guidance on federal religious liberty law for all federal agencies. Religious freedom has been seen as a priority for the Sessions-led Department of Justice.

Similarly, Trump has appointed freedom of conscience and religious liberty defender Roger Severino to head the Office for Civil Rights (OCR) at the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS).

LGBT rights advocates condemned Severino’s appointment.

“I could not think of a more dangerous person to head up the Office of Civil Rights at HHS,” JoDee Winterhof, senior vice president of policy and public affairs at the Human Rights Campaign said, according to Yahoo. “Once again, Donald Trump is declaring war against our community by appointing anti-LGBTQ people at all levels of his administration.”

Additionally, Trump appointed pro-life advocate Dr. Charmaine Yoest to be assistant secretary of public affairs for HHS.

Planned Parenthood – the nation’s largest abortion vendor – criticized that appointment:

Writing at the New York Times last week, Emily Bazelon said HHS “is getting an anti-abortion makeover.”

“The department is headed by a strongly anti-abortion former congressman, Tom Price,” she continued. “Charmaine Yoest, former head of Americans United for Life, the intellectual powerhouse of the anti-abortion movement, is an assistant secretary and Teresa Manning, a former lobbyist for the National Right to Life Committee, is in line to be a deputy assistant secretary.”

“Of course, the majority of Americans don’t think that protecting the First Amendment is even close to outrageous — but the fact that liberals do proves why this order is necessary!” explains FRC. “We couldn’t be happier that Secretary Perdue took the president’s words to heart and set to work righting the wrongs done to businesses like the Vander Boon’s.”

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