A year ago, religious non-profit groups, charities, and educational institutions were waiting to hear if the Supreme Court would allow the Obama administration to punish us for our beliefs. Today, we celebrate a new administration that protects our religious liberty with a new executive order, rather than attacking it. After 100 days of victories for the unborn, their mothers, and all who uphold the value of human life, President Trump's "second 100 days" are off to a great start for those of us who also value the right to practice our faith.
The president's new executive order is a strong statement in defense of the First Amendment's declaration that the government may not prohibit the free exercise of religion. Its contrast with President Barack Obama's policies could not be more manifest.
It was last May that the Supreme Court ruled unanimously that the federal government's so-called "HHS mandate" could not be enforced as written against groups like the one I lead, Priests for Life. The mandate would have required religious non-profit organizations to help distribute abortion-causing drugs and devices — an action that would have made us complicit in grave sin — the destruction of human lives.
In spite of the fact that bureaucrats in Washington could have devised plans to implement their policy agenda without involving religious organizations, for more than four years they relentlessly argued that they couldn't – until they admitted to the Supreme Court that they could.
Representatives of virtually all faiths agreed there was no reason for the government to pursue its aggression against charitable religious organizations. Orthodox Jews, Muslims, practitioners of Native American religions, and adherents of Krishna Consciousness all defended Roman Catholics and Evangelical Protestants with legal briefs in our court cases. They recognized that an attack on one faith is an attack on all.
So does Trump.
His latest executive order is a reaffirmation of our nation's founding principle that the government should not intrude into matters of faith. It reinforces the view of James Madison, the "father" of the Constitution, who said, "The Religion then of every man must be left to the conviction and conscience of every man; and it is the right of every man to exercise it as these may dictate. This right is in its nature an unalienable right."
In the United States, then, there can be no government approval or disapproval of any religion. Discriminatory actions by elected officials or appointed bureaucrats against any or all faiths are wrong. This includes the government censoring what may or may not be said from a pulpit.
Yet, for more than 60 years, the federal government has made stark threats based on a vague law resulting in the denial of priests', pastors', and rabbis' free speech. The law is called the Johnson Amendment. While it would require congressional action to repeal it, Trump has vowed to work toward that goal. Certainly we are moving in that direction.
As I wrote in my book, Abolishing Abortion, the Johnson Amendment says that churches may not engage in "political" activities. It was named after then-senator and later President Lyndon Johnson who wanted to silence non-profit groups that were supporting his opponent in Texas' Democratic senate primary. Johnson succeeded in passing the law and winning his race, but his victory cost clergy their right to free speech.
What makes the Johnson Amendment so egregious is that no one really knows what it means. There's a legal doctrine, "void for vagueness." It basically states that criminal statutes are unconstitutional if it's not possible to discern when they are being violated. The Johnson Amendment, while not a criminal statute, is such a measure. And because of its ambiguity, its infringement on free speech has been all the greater.
The right to act on one's religious beliefs, of course, is not unlimited. But the federal government, by law, is severely restricted in what it can force churches or religious individuals to do. Over the last eight years, the Obama administration ignored those restrictions and sought to impose its will without justification.
Trump's executive order on religious liberty is a resetting of the principles that have historically guided the federal government and protected our rights. To say that it's welcome is an understatement. At Priests for Life, we are thrilled to support a president who is in favor of religious freedom.
Just as we've seen attacks on free speech lately, though, we will undoubtedly see attacks on the president's order. But we are a nation of laws, not of mobs.
Further, we are a country where we find ways to accommodate each other without trampling on each other's fundamental rights. The president's executive order is such an accommodation. Speaking as one who has spent the last five years in court battles defending religious rights against a government that could have, but didn't, respect those rights, I say, "Hallelujah!"
Father Frank Pavone (@frfrankpavone) is a contributor to the Washington Examiner's Beltway Confidential blog. He is the national director of Priests for Life.
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