May 7, 2018 – In honor of the National Day of Prayer, President Donald Trump, with his Evangelical Advisory Board by his side, held a ceremony in the Rose Garden and signed an “Executive Order on the Establishment of a White House Faith and Opportunity Initiative.”
Under the guise of religious freedom, this executive order further entrenches the Administration’s policies to allow religion to discriminate. At the same time, it strips the limited religious liberty protections that exist for individuals who use the government-funded social services.
First, the order creates “Faith and Opportunity” offices or liaisons in every federal agency and department and tasks them with enforcing the U.S. Department of Justice’s 25-page “guidance on religious liberty.” This guidance contains extreme interpretations of the law in an effort to give a green light to religious exemptions, regardless of how an exemption would affect other people or the public interest. For example, the guidance explicitly states that faith-based organizations may accept taxpayer dollars to perform social services and use those funds to discriminate in hiring. And we know some government contractors want to cite religion to refuse to provide vital services required under their contract, like reproductive health care to victims of sexual assault.
These offices must also identify and reduce “barriers” to the engagement of faith-based groups and the “burdens on the exercise of religious convictions.” Of course, there are no barriers or burdens that need to be removed – faith-based organizations deliver social services on behalf of the government all the time. What this administration calls “barriers” are really important safeguards that protect the religious freedom of those using the social services and the taxpayers. In fact, current rules governing the partnership between the federal government are already too lax. But, a spokesman for Trump’s Evangelical Advisory Board, which appears to have advised the president on this executive order, sees these existing protections, which are required by the Constitution, as nothing more than “arbitrary concerns as to what is appropriate.”
And in fact, the executive order strips religious freedom protections for people who use government services put in place by President Barack Obama. The safeguards had ensured that if someone objected to the religious character of their government-funded social service provider, they would have access to an alternative provider.
Imagine, for example, that you are Jewish and seeking treatment for a substance-abuse disorder from a federally funded program and the administrator of the program has a poster on the wall declaring, “Jesus is the only way.” Under the Obama rules, you would be ensured that the agency must provide you with an alternative provider. This rule, key to protecting the religious freedom of beneficiaries of government-funded services, was based on the recommendation of an Obama advisory council made up of diverse faith and secular leaders from the left and the right. Trump, with the support of his one-sided Evangelical Advisory Board, removed that protection.
Of course, there are still lots of questions. As New York Times national religion correspondent, Laurie Goodstein asked: “Who will run it? What’s the funding?” But one thing is for certain – Trump is committed to allowing religion to be used to discriminate throughout the federal government and today’s order is just another way to implement this agenda.
Religious freedom should be a shield to protect religion, not a sword to harm others. Trump and his Evangelical Advisory Board have this all wrong; they’re harming religious freedom, not protecting it.
Maggie Garrett is the Legislative Director for Americans United for Separation of Church and State. www.au.org