Conservatives, constitutionalists, and faith leaders are expressing varied reactions to President Donald Trump’s executive order on religious liberty, signed Thursday.
The order asserts the Trump administration intends to “vigorously enforce Federal law’s robust protections for religious freedom,” and directs the IRS “to the greatest extent practicable and to the extent permitted by law,” to relieve the burdens of the Johnson Amendment, which prevents members of the clergy from speaking about political issues in houses of worship.
The order also directs the Attorney General of the United States “to guide all agencies in complying with relevant Federal law… interpreting religious liberty protections in Federal law.”
The actions taken today are a broadside to our country’s long-standing commitment to the separation of church and state.
— ACLU (@ACLU) May 4, 2017
While leftwing organizations such as the ACLU condemned the order, faith leaders in general view it as positive, though many say it is only a “first step.”
— ACLU (@ACLU) May 4, 2017
As a result of the order, the Little Sisters of the Poor say they are now closer to achieving their freedom from an Obamacare mandate that required them to provide contraception and abortion-inducing drugs to their employees.
Nearly one year ago today the Supreme Court protected our ability to serve the elderly poor while remaining true to our faith. Today we are grateful for the President’s order and look forward to the agencies giving us an exemption so that we can continue caring for the elderly poor and dying as if they were Christ himself without the fear of government punishment.
The Sisters previously received unanimous protection from the Supreme Court and a midnight reprieve on New Year’s Eve 2013 before government fines were about to begin. In all, the government brought its mandate to the Supreme Court five times and lost five times. And those decisions were unanimous in the two cases involving the Little Sisters.
Mark Rienzi, senior counsel at Becket, said:
The President’s order makes clear that all federal agencies and lawyers must obey the law and respect religious liberty. As the Supreme Court’s orders show, it was unnecessary and illegal to impose this mandate on the Little Sisters and other religious organizations. Our country has enough real problems without picking pointless culture wars against women who spend their lives caring for the elderly poor. America is better than that.
Family Research Council president Tony Perkins said the executive order represents the president taking “a significant first step to defending religious liberty.” Perkins said:
Finally, the federal government realizes the immoral and insane mandate that forces organizations like the Little Sister of the Poor to include contraception and abortifacients in their healthcare plans. No longer will the IRS muzzle the speech of pastors and non-profit organizations and the Department of Justice will address the host of other anti-religious policies and actions launched by the previous administration by issuing guidelines for all federal agencies. The guidelines will ensure religious beliefs and actions are respected and protected.
“The open season on Christians and other people of faith is coming to a close in America and we look forward to assisting the Trump administration in fully restoring America’s First Freedom,” he added.
Rep. Diane Black (R-TN) said the president’s order “will put an end to IRS harassment of churches and pastors for preaching the tenets of their faith.”
“It will stop IRS targeting of innocent Americans for their religious beliefs,” she continued. “And it will ensure that employers are not forced by the government to buy Obamacare plans that violate their deeply held religious convictions.”
Andrea Picciotti-Bayer, legal advisor for The Catholic Association Foundation, observed Trump’s executive order “recognizes that Supreme Court decisions like the ones involving Hobby Lobby and the Little Sisters of the Poor can only go so far in recognizing our long-standing protection from government interference with religious beliefs.”
As such, it directs the federal government to comply with these Supreme Court decisions, consistent with the opinion of the majority of Americans, by issuing appropriate regulations protecting family-owned businesses and religious institutions from being forced to provide or contribute to medical procedures contrary to their beliefs. This Order is an important step in safeguarding to the right of every American to have their religious beliefs protected in their day-to-day lives.
Alveda King, director of Civil Rights for the Unborn for Priests for Life – and the niece of Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. – said Trump’s order confirms “the foundational principle of religious freedom, which means that citizens are free to act in accordance with their religious beliefs, not just in church, but in every arena of life.”
“President Trump has kept another promise to pro-lifers and people of faith with this executive order,” King said. “I thank God for him.”
Not all conservative leaders, however, are happy with Trump’s executive order.
“Today’s executive order is woefully inadequate,” writes the Heritage Foundation’s Ryan Anderson at the Daily Signal.
Trump campaigned promising Americans that he would protect their religious liberty rights and correct the violations that took place during the previous administration.”
Trump’s election was about correcting problems of the last administration, including religious liberty violations and the hostility to people of faith in the United States. This order does not do that. It is a mere shadow of the original draft leaked in February.
Anderson refers to a draft copy of the executive order that was leaked to the leftwing Nation and LGBT advocacy groups. The leak, says Politico, was “the handiwork, many conservatives believed, of Ivanka Trump and Jared Kushner, who have sought to project themselves as friendly to the LGBT community.”
The Heritage senior research fellow explains:
In reality, what 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.
Kelly Shackelford, president and CEO of First Liberty Institute, also noted that Trump’s executive order “should be both unnecessary and unremarkable.”
“Yet activists have pledged to challenge President Trump in court for supporting the First Amendment,” he said. “Our country was founded on the promise that its government would respect the religious liberty of its people.”
As the Atlantic observes, Tim Schultz – president of the First Amendment Partnership – appeared to expect that conservative reaction to the order would be mixed, particularly due to the lack of emphasis on same-sex marriage.
“Many will be disappointed that this signals a lack of will by the administration to expend political capital in this context,” he wrote to the Atlantic. “Others want to see this addressed with great political care … and they will see an opportunity in this omission.”
Regarding the Johnson Amendment, Schultz also wrote, “There could well be unintended consequences that are bad for faith communities,” and included in this area the potential for religious organization to become flooded with political lobbying dollars.