Religious liberty: Parsing Trump’s promises
“People of faith are heartened” by President Trump’s latest effort to protect religious freedom, said Jim Campbell in TheHill.com. After vowing during the campaign to make religious liberty his “first priority,” Trump marked last week’s National Day of Prayer by signing an executive order that instructs the IRS not to enforce the Johnson Amendment—a 1954 rule denying taxexempt status to religious organizations that back political candidates. Trump also directed federal agencies to consider “amended regulations” to exempt religious groups from the Obamacare contraception mandate. Although Trump’s defense of religious liberty was one that “many conservatives have longed to hear,” some faith groups confessed they’d hoped for more substantive legal protections; the Johnson Amendment is rarely enforced, after all, and exemptions from the contraception mandate already exist. But let’s see “what Trump’s administration does with the vision” he has cast.
Liberals should be relieved, said Noah Feldman in Bloomberg.com. For months, progressives and LGBT groups feared Trump would use this order to exempt religious conservatives from anti-discrimination laws. But the watered-down final document that Trump signed is “silent on gay marriage or gay rights.” Nevertheless, it “still opens the door to policies that will erode the wall between church and state,” said Stephanie Russell- Kraft in NewRepublic.com. The order explicitly affirms the notion that religious liberty is “‘Americans’ first freedom,’ as if all other freedoms—such as equal protection under the law—are secondary.” Trump also appears to give Attorney General Jeff Sessions wide latitude to invoke the 1993 Religious Freedom Restoration Act, which “has become a legal weapon used by the religious right”—as it was last year when a federal judge ruled that the act protected a Michigan funeral home that fired a transgender employee.
If Trump cared about people of faith, he would do the “statutory and regulatory work that truly protects religious liberty,” said David French in NationalReview.com. Executive orders are flimsy and ephemeral—“freedom must be written into law, not wish-cast through commands that a later president can reverse.” If evangelicals hadn’t turned out for him, our president would be “plotting the comeback of Trump Steaks.” It’s time for faith leaders to tell Trump to start pushing for real legislation. “The nation’s first liberty demands more respect—and more protection.” ■