On Monday (April 3), eighteen U.S. Senators penned a letter to President Donald Trump urging him to sign an executive order that would require agencies of the federal government to respect religious freedom. The letter, drafted by Senator Roy Blount (MO-R) and signed by Sens. Cruz, Rubio, Sasse, and fourteen others, calls for the President to take swift action to protect religious liberty.
“We were encouraged to learn of your consideration of an executive order that would require the agencies of the federal government to respect religious freedom throughout their activities and respectfully request you issue such an order without delay” write the Senators.
Noting that “Congress and the Executive Branch have repeatedly acted to preserve and affirm the right of individuals to express freely and act on their religious beliefs,” the Senators encouraged President Trump that “an executive order requiring federal government agencies to protect the right to religious freedom is necessary, and directing agencies to adhere to existing federal laws protecting religious freedom is sound policy.”
The letter highlights recent stories that alarmed many Americans—the Obama administration’s attempt to coerce the Little Sisters of the Poor to comply with the Obamacare contraception mandate and the United States Solicitor General’s comments during Obergefell v. Hodges that tax exemption was “certainly going to be an issue” if the Supreme Court legalized same-sex marriage. These are only two of many potential examples.
Across the country, institutions and individuals that do not comply with the demands of the sexual revolutionaries are being dragged into court because they won’t violate their sincerely held beliefs concerning marriage and human sexuality. For example, a Washington court recently ruled against Barronelle Stutzman, a florist who declined to arrange flower bouquets for a same-sex wedding ceremony. Although she had served the same-sex couple for years, she said providing arrangements for a same-sex ceremony violated her religious beliefs. The court not only ruled against her, but said that the state and same-sex couple could collect damages and attorneys’ fees from Stutzman personally, meaning the 70-year-old grandmother could lose her business, home, and life savings. This example provides a glimpse into the challenging environment for people who seek to live out their religious beliefs.
And while florists, bakers, photographers and wedding service-providers have received the initial ire of LGBT activists, they won’t be the last. There have already been calls to strip churches and religious organizations of their tax exempt status for failing to embrace the new sexual orthodoxy. Thus, the need for strengthening religious liberty protections is vital.
Reflecting on the financial burdens produced by all of this litigation, the Senators rightly note, “We cannot be a country that financially punishes individuals for practicing their sincerely held religious beliefs or decides which practices are a valid part of a particular religious tradition and worthy of protection.”
In early February, a draft of an executive order titled “Establishing a Government-Wide Initiative to Respect Religious Freedom” was leaked and circulated among reporters. In the wake of outrage manufactured by the media and activist groups, the White House downplayed the potential order. “We do not have plans to sign anything at this time but will let you know when we have any updates,” said White House spokesperson Sarah Huckabee Sanders at the time.
This apparent timidity raises concern about President Trump’s commitment to campaign promises he made to religious conservatives. On the campaign trail, then-candidate Trump championed religious liberty and conscience protection. On September 22, 2016, he bravely promised, “If I am elected President and Congress passes the First Amendment Defense Act, I will sign it to protect the deeply held religious beliefs of Catholics and the beliefs of Americans of all faiths.”
The First Amendment Defense Act (FADA) would prohibit the federal government from taking discriminatory action against anyone who believes or acts in accordance with a religious belief that holds marriage is the union of one man and one woman and that sexual relations are “properly reserved to such a marriage.”
President Trump promised courageous leadership. And despite misgivings from some prominent religious leaders, 80 percent of evangelical Christians voted for the President, motivated by his repeated promises to support religious freedom. While nominating Judge Neil Gorsuch to the Supreme Court fulfilled a significant campaign promise, it is not enough. Mounting attacks on religious freedom demonstrate that much more is needed. The previous administration’s ambivalence toward protecting the first amendment, judicial activism, and an emboldened LGBT lobby necessitate decisive action.
Thus, if President Trump wants to lead on the issue of religious freedom he should pursue two objectives. First, he should listen to the 18 Senators and sign an executive order protecting religious liberty. Second, he should actively encourage Congress to pass the First Amendment Defense Act (FADA). Undoubtedly, these actions will encounter fierce resistance from the media and prompt a day’s worth of hysteria from activist groups determined to oppose the President on every issue.
But President Trump should stand strong; he shouldn’t succumb to political pressure. Voters in swing states across America provided him with a mandate to pursue a bold agenda. For millions of evangelical Christians, the President’s promises to safeguard religious freedom animated their support. Honoring these promises is the right thing to do.
And the time to act is now. The administration’s feeble response to the leaked draft in February has prompted concern. An executive order on religious freedom would reassure conservatives and demonstrate the President’s priorities.
In response to the Senators’ letter, Mat Staver, President and Chairman of Liberty Counsel, concurred with the concerns raised and reiterated the need for an executive order and Congressional action: “Religious freedom is the reason America was founded. The foundation of this nation was built on the conviction that our Creator endowed us with inalienable rights and government is under God and a servant of the people. But today religious freedom is under attack. At this pivotal time in history I call upon President Trump to issue an Executive Order and Congress to pass legislation that protects religious freedom.”
Of course, given the precarious state of religious liberty, Staver is right—legislative fixes like the ones contained in FADA are what is needed. But because the executive order is already out there, the President needs to sign it. If he doesn’t, he will appear weak and fearful. It will indicate that the LGBT lobby still exerts an outsized influence on the White House. Failure to sign the promised executive order would also signal a lack of courage to legislators on Capitol Hill. Signing the order would reassure Republicans that President Trump intends to keep his promises and would forestall concern that he is disinterested in fighting for his legislative agenda.
Finally, when it comes to issues of religious freedom, there is concern that President Trump will only push for abolishing the Johnson Amendment. While removing the Johnson Amendment is supported by religious leaders, it is very low on the priority list. Again, what’s needed is an executive order followed by a concerted effort to pass FADA. Pursuing this bold agenda would signal to evangelical Christians that the President’s promises were sincere and that he intends to keep them.
As recently as February 2, President Trump reiterated his support for religious liberty. At the National Prayer Breakfast he promised, “My administration will do everything in its power to defend and protect religious liberty in our land.”
In their letter, the Senators acknowledged these remarks: “We agree with and commend your strong statements in support of religious liberty, most recently at the National Prayer Breakfast.” They added, “The free exercise of religion rings hollow if individuals do not have the ability to live out their faith without fear of repercussion from the government.”
Hopefully, President Trump acts quickly and follows through on the Senator’s request. Government officials have a responsibility to protect the free exercise of religion. They have a duty to safeguard the first amendment. The President’s leadership on this issue would demonstrate courage and fortitude. It would reveal his priorities and indicate that he is sincere in keeping his promises.
Senators signing the letter include Roy Blount (R-MO), James Lankford (R-OK), Steve Daines (R-MT), Mike Lee (R-UT), Ted Cruz (R-TX), Ben Sasse (R-NE), Mike Enzi (R-WY), James Inhofe (R-OK), Tim Scott (R-SC), John Kennedy (R-LA), Luther Strange (R-AL), Bill Cassidy (R-LA), Rand Paul (R-KY), Roger Wicker (R-MS), James Risch (R-ID), Dan Sullivan (AK), Marco Rubio (R-FL), and Ron Johnson (WI)
The Senate letter can be viewed here: Signed Senate Letter to POTUS on Religious Liberty EO 4-3-17