Earlier this month, a draft document emerged suggesting that President Trump is considering an executive order to protect religious freedom. Despite the overwrought complaints of some, the draft order is a measured attempt to restore religious freedom in areas where it was lost or threatened under President Barack Obama's administration.
During the last eight years, Obama showed little regard for religious freedom by signing laws, adopting regulations, reinterpreting statutes and issuing executive orders that drove people of faith, particularly members of the Abrahamic faiths, to the outskirts of society. On the campaign trail, candidate Trump promised to end that.
Speaking at the Iowa Faith and Freedom Coalition Presidential Forum in September 2015, Trump said, "The first priority of my administration will be to preserve and protect our religious liberty." Signing the religious freedom executive order would be a good start to show that he meant what he said.
Indeed, it's a vital first step to undo some of the most egregious harm that his predecessor caused. The prior administration insisted that religious organizations, like homes for the elderly and faith-based universities, must violate their convictions by indirectly providing their employees with abortion-inducing drugs. The draft executive order would end this still-looming threat to their freedom.
Also, during the last administration, numerous religious charities that serve needy families and abandoned children were driven out of doing that important work. In Washington, D.C., for example, Catholic Charities was forced to close its foster-care and adoption programs simply because it operated consistently with its religious belief that marriage is the union of one man and one woman. The draft executive order, if signed, would go a long way toward ensuring that these groups are once again free to serve their communities.
Not only is it unfair to drive these religious organizations from public life, it is also unwise. Society as a whole benefits from their work, and the marginalized and disadvantaged benefit the most. A recent study by Brian Grim at Georgetown University concluded that "the fair market value of goods and services provided by religious organizations" and "businesses with religious roots" is more than $1 trillion annually in the United States. Freeing those organizations to love and serve their neighbors is thus good for us all.
The opponents of religious freedom are feverishly marching out their objections, but their arguments are long on rhetoric and short on analysis. To begin with, they ignore that the draft order repeatedly states that it applies only "to the extent permitted by law." It will not take away any existing statutory right that any private citizen already has. It simply ensures that the federal government will not continue its last eight years of trampling religious freedom beneath its feet.
The draft order has other significant qualifications, too. For instance, its protection for federal employees, contractors, or grant recipients within the workplace applies only when the government is able to "reasonably accommodate" religious exercise. It's not an unqualified decree promising that religious freedom will always win. Rather, it requires the feds to accommodate religion when possible, which is directly in line with what Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 (a federal employment nondiscrimination law) already requires.
Notably, the order makes clear that the executive branch is to uphold religious freedom for "persons of all faiths." While it expressly protects (in limited situations) people that speak or act consistently with specific beliefs about marriage and humanity, that is neither surprising nor troublesome. Those particular beliefs (like the conviction that marriage is the union of one man and one woman) were demonstrably targeted and disfavored by the prior administration. The Constitution allows the government to alleviate the most pressing and palpable burdens on religion, which is precisely what this order would do.
Trump should sign it, the first of many steps to fulfill his promise to protect religious freedom. If he does that, it would welcome people of faith back into public life and free them to serve their neighbors, especially the most vulnerable, with love and compassion. On the issue of religious freedom, it would be the White House's first sign of a new dawn, the first hint that a long, dark night is coming to an end.
Jim Campbell is senior counsel with Alliance Defending Freedom, which defends religious freedom in the U.S. and worldwide.
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