President Trump’s religious freedom order offers welcome shift in tone

President Donald Trump shows his signed Executive Order on Promoting Free Speech and Religious Liberty during a National Day of Prayer event at the White House in Washington May 4. (CNS photo/Jim Lo Scalzo, EPA)

Do you believe in freedom?

Most Americans would answer this question “yes.” After all, the desire to be free from an oppressive monarch led to the

American Revolution, and liberty is one of the “unalienable rights” mentioned in the Declaration of Independence.

In recent years, however, many Americans have grown alarmed by government’s infringements upon their freedoms. Whether it’s the coercive gun-grabbing of Governor Andrew Cuomo’s SAFE Act or mean-spirited attempts to punish florists and bakers who conscientiously object to participating in same-sex ceremonies, it seems that freedom is being rolled back. If Americans truly believe in freedom, we must stand for freedom—including the freedom of religion.

President Donald Trump took a stand for religious freedom on May 4, when he signed his Presidential Executive Order Promoting Free Speech and Religious Liberty. Given that Americans have spent the past eight years under the thumb of an administration that was often hostile to religious freedom, President Trump’s order represents a welcome shift in tone. However, the impact of the executive order is likely to be limited, and more action is needed to restore and safeguard freedom of religion in the United States.

When it comes to religious freedom, President Trump inherited a challenging situation. President Barack Obama’s record on religious liberty is marred by several bad policies, the chief of which is the conscience-crushing Obamacare birth control mandate. This mandate requires covered employers to provide employees with health insurance coverage that includes FDA-approved methods of birth control, some of which cause abortion. The mandate did provide a narrow exemption for religious organizations, but faith-based charities and family-owned businesses were not covered by that exemption and have gone all the way to the Supreme Court to fight the mandate. Some plaintiffs (such as Hobby Lobby) have prevailed, while others—including the Little Sisters of the Poor—are still immersed in litigation.

Other religious liberty concerns created by the Obama Administration include withholding anti-human trafficking funds from Catholic groups that do not refer clients for abortions, unsuccessfully trying to persuade the Supreme Court that a Christian school had committed “discrimination” by declining to employ a practicing homosexual as a teacher, and aggressively attacking religious expression in the U.S. military.

Given the Obama Administration’s checkered history, President Trump’s executive order is an important step toward restoring religious freedom to its rightful place in American society. First, the order states that the President is committed to “vigorously [enforcing] Federal law’s robust protections for religious freedom.” This statement is a breath of fresh air for Americans who have experienced government attacks on their religious liberty. Second, the order declares that the Department of the Treasury will not attack the tax-exempt status of churches and clergy who speak out on political issues without engaging in electioneering. Third, the order states that various federal agencies will “consider issuing amended regulations…to address conscience-based objections” to the Obamacare birth control mandate.

Now that President Trump has stated his support for religious liberty, the next—and more challenging—task is to implement policies that match his convictions. The President should make it an immediate priority to lift the burden of the Obamacare birth control mandate from faith-based charities and family-owned businesses. (Alternatively, the President should consider rescinding the birth control mandate altogether.) The President should not wait for Congress to address the birth control mandate through legislation; it was created by regulation, and it can be reversed by regulation. President Trump should also issue an order instructing federal agencies and the U.S. Armed Forces to examine their policies regarding religious liberty to ensure compliance with the Constitution and with applicable law, and to recommend any changes needed to restore freedoms that were abridged under the Obama Administration. President Trump should also push Congress to enact the Free Speech Fairness Act (which would allow churches and charities to engage in political speech, so long as they do not spend substantial funds on politics) and the First Amendment Defense Act (FADA) (which would protect Americans who believe that “marriage is or should be recognized as the union of one man and one woman” from discrimination by the federal government). Finally, President Trump should promote religious liberty worldwide by appointing an ambassador-at-large for international religious freedom.

As President Trump said in his May 4 address in the Rose Garden, “For too long, the federal government has used the power of the state as a weapon against people of faith, bullying and even punishing Americans for following their religious beliefs.” Now, President Trump has the opportunity to right this wrong. All Americans who believe in freedom should urge him to do so.

Jason McGuire is chairman of the Livingston County Conservative Party and a former pastor. He lives in Lima with his family.