Encouraging or Empty? Faith-Based Groups Divided Over Impact of Trump’s Religious Freedom Executive Order

WASHINGTON — Faith-based groups across the nation are divided in their opinions over how much of an impact that President Trump’s newly-signed executive order will actually have on the protection of religious liberty in the nation.

“Federal law protects the freedom of Americans and their organizations to exercise religion and participate fully in civic life without undue interference by the federal government. The executive branch will honor and enforce those protections,” the order reads in part.

“In reality, what Trump issued today is rather weak,” Ryan Anderson of the Heritage Foundation wrote in a commentary for the Daily Signal following Thursday’s signing. “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.”

He noted that the order also directs the Department of the Treasury not to enforce the Johnson Amendment and recommends that the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) consider amending regulations to address accommodations for conscience objections to the contraceptive mandate in Obamacare.

“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,” Anderson said.

Alliance Defending Freedom (ADF) Senior Counsel Gregory Baylor likewise expressed apprehension over how much Trump’s religious freedom order will 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,” he noted in a statement.

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“Second, the outline directs the IRS ‘to exercise maximum enforcement discretion to alleviate the burden of the Johnson Amendment.’ But Americans cannot rely on the discretion of IRS agents, some of whom have abused that discretion for years to silence pastors and intrude into America’s pulpits,” Baylor said.

He also opined that Trump’s suggestion of regulatory relief from the contraceptive mandate is “disappointingly vague,” and that a clear exemption should be added to the law for those who object on moral grounds.

However, others remarked that the order is only a signal of what is to come and surmised that Christians should not be concerned that the text left out certain issues, such as protections for those who stand for biblical marriage.

“I suspect that some Christians might be puzzled by the president’s executive order because it does not specifically mention protections for people like the Vander Boons or [florist Barronelle] Stutzman. … That’s because President Trump has directed the Department of Justice to come up with guidelines that will protect people of faith and ‘ensure these religious protections are afforded to all Americans,'” wrote conservative commentator Todd Starnes.

“That means Attorney General Jeff Sessions will be writing guidelines for every federal agency to ensure that our rights are protected,” he said. “I know that some of my fellow evangelicals are a bit uneasy because they don’t believe the executive order goes far enough, but be patient. This is the first of several steps to protect religious liberty.”

Tony Perkins, president of Family Research Council, issued similar remarks.

“This step today starts the process of reversing the devastating trend set by the last administration to punish charities, pastors, family owned businesses and honest, hard-working people simply for living according to their faith,” he said in a statement. “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.”

As previously reported, yesterday’s signing at the White House rose garden took place in front of an interfaith gathering, which included evangelical, Roman Catholic, Orthodox, Jewish, Muslim and Sikh representatives. Trump advised during his speech that he plans to travel to Saudi Arabia this month—where he will visit a local mosque—as well Israel and Italy, where he will visit the Vatican in Rome.

The Trump administration has also noted that while it values religious liberty, it intends to likewise keep intact Obama’s order, #13672, which amended a 1969 order by then-President Richard Nixon prohibiting federal contractors from discriminating based on “race, color, religion, sex, national origin, handicap and age,” as well as a 1998 order from then-President Bill Clinton adding “sexual orientation” to the list.

Obama added “gender identity” to Clinton’s “sexual orientation” language.

“The executive order signed in 2014, which protects employees from anti-LGBTQ workplace discrimination while working for federal contractors, will remain intact at the direction of President Donald J. Trump,” the White House said in a statement in January.

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