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These days, religious liberty is sitting pretty in church

060117 Ehrlich Column pic
President Trump signed an executive order aimed at easing an IRS rule limiting political activity for churches. (AP Photo/Evan Vucci)

A life in politics means regular visits to churches, synagogues, mosques, or any combination of houses of worship. Such occasions convey a sense of respect for the institution and people of faith. An aspiring candidate's presence is often recognized from the pulpit. Whether anything other than mere recognition occurs depends upon the officiant. In rare cases, an invitation will be extended to say a few words or shake hands with the congregation while they file out. Suffice to say much can be riding on such appearances.

I've been thinking of my many hours spent in places of worship (while on the campaign trail) as the issue of religious liberty again re-emerges – but now with a far different perspective than applied during President Barack Obama's administration.

The news item at the heart of the latest upheaval is President Trump's recent executive order aimed at circumscribing the so-called "Johnson Amendment," thereby instructing the IRS to give wide latitude to charitable organizations, including clergy, while monitoring speech in (tax-exempt) places of worship. Despite a bit of mild criticism from the Right as to how the president's instruction could have utilized stronger verbiage, the expanded berth is nevertheless a positive development. Nobody really knew where the Johnson Amendment's line between free speech and political activism actually fell, which led to legitimate concerns about (selective) enforcement. Here, people could rightfully be concerned about a powerful federal agency exercising discretion over highly-protected speech.

Unsurprisingly, this latest order has drawn howls of protest from the usual suspects – secular progressives practiced in the art of "howling." But there is a deeper reason for their angst. A new sheriff named Trump seems intent on reversing Obama-era limitations on religious liberty. And there are far more consequential issues in the pipeline than whether the local congressman gave greetings from the pulpit last Sunday.

A first step is Trump's demonstrated enthusiasm for remaking the American judiciary — a campaign commitment the administration seems intent on keeping. Today, reliably liberal Obama appointees make up approximately 40 percent of the federal judiciary. In response, the president is taking dead aim at the approximately 120 vacancies in the federal district and circuit courts. It is the stuff of recurring nightmares for progressives: a generation of younger, conservative judges intent on interpreting rather than inventing the law and unenthusiastic about the progressive push to punish or ban offensive (read: not politically correct) speech. Indeed, despite all the manufactured mudslinging around the nomination of Neil Gorsuch, our new Supreme Court justice was simply the opening act in what is planned to be a sustained campaign in support of judicial restraint and free speech.

Another prominent liberty issue is Conscience Clause protection, until recently a demilitarized zone in the contemporary culture wars. Indeed, the ability of religiously-affiliated healthcare providers to follow their faith-based principles was (not so long ago) well-recognized by both sides of the abortion divide. I can even recall a time (the early 1990s) when the overwhelming pro-choice legislature of deep-blue Maryland (of which I was a member) included comprehensive conscience clause protection while passing the most pro-choice statute in the country.

But things changed dramatically during the uber-progressive Obama era. Some of you may remember Obama's visit to Notre Dame wherein he promised the assembled that his administration would continue to honor Conscience Clause protections. A few years later, Obama's Justice Department sued the Little Sisters of the Poor for refusing to pay for insurance coverage that included abortion services.

The most recent class of religious liberty cases focus on the freedom of commercial vendors to decline participation in gay weddings. Early cases focused on wedding cakes and photography services. Similar commercial settings will invariably arise in the future. In addition to the usual emotionalism of the respective sides, herein is a consequential clash of fundamental rights: the right to marry (and the right to purchase related goods and services) against the individual vendor's right to religious liberty in the secular space. Obama's Justice Department predictably took a limited view of religious liberty rights in such circumstances. A Jeff Sessions-led Department of Justice is likely to adopt a more expansive posture.

Next up in our cultural parade of rights will be issues relative to transgender individuals – from the bathroom to the classroom to adoption services. And who knows the next generation's (civil rights) cause of choice. But a new president has begun to change the dialogue and the legal playing field. Henceforth, expressions of religious conviction will now receive added protection, as will the under-reported plight of persecuted Christians around the world.

The bottom line: Executive branch control under Trump gives conservatives the power to influence cultural debates similar to the way progressives exerted their influence during the Obama years.

All of which means plenty of acrimony, protests and litigation going forward.

Gov. Robert Ehrlich is a Washington Examiner columnist, partner at King & Spalding and author of three books, including the recently released Turning Point. He was governor of Maryland from 2003 - 2007.