Legislative Action Needed On Religious Rights

Social “progressives” were alarmed, and political and religious conservatives heartened, by a presidential executive order draft leaked to the media in February. President Trump, it seemed, was poised to reverse President Barack Obama’s own executive order barring government contractors from discriminating on the basis of moral concerns and to remove other current prohibitions against religion-based discrimination in the federal government.

The final form of the executive order issued by Mr. Trump last Thursday, however, fell short on delivering on any of those things. In fact, the main real-life upshot of the executive order, even though it involves support for the free speech rights of religious institutions, made some religious groups and leaders uneasy. That change is what the White House described as the order’s effective reversal of the 1954 regulation known as the Johnson Amendment, which prohibits houses of worship and faith groups from endorsing or opposing candidates, on penalty of losing their tax-exempt status.

Mr. Trump has long promised to do away with the law, which he sees as restricting religious freedom, but a number of religious groups had urged him to leave it intact, fearful that its rescinding would turn their congregations into political debating clubs and open their clergy to pressures from well-heeled congregants to endorse particular candidates. A full repeal of the Johnson Amendment, though, can happen only through an act of Congress, and the language of the last week’s order does not seem to substantively change it.

The executive order also pledges, if without offering specifics, to “vigorously enforce Federal law’s robust protections for religious freedom,” and to “address” regulations that prohibit employers from denying certain medical coverages on religious grounds. While this is clearly a small step in the right direction, precisely how these pledges will affect actual policies remains to be seen.

But, in the earlier days of his presidency, Mr. Trump has reinstated, and even toughened, the Mexico City Policy, which eliminates U.S. funding for international non governmental organizations whose activities are objectionable to many religious groups — a policy that has been rescinded and reinstated by various administrations over the years and was most recently rescinded by President Obama.

The administration, moreover, has placed religious Americans in critical roles, including Tom Price as secretary of Health and Human Services, Betsy DeVos as education secretary and Mike Pence as vice president. And, most significantly, his Supreme Court pick, Neil Gorsuch, a conservative originalist in the mold of the late Justice Antonin Scalia, won confirmation.

And, so, while the recent executive order may not concretely address the issues that most concern religious Americans, its general tenor, coupled with other administration actions and appointments, do provide space for optimism that religious rights in coming days will not be relegated to secondary status with relation to “progressive” values.

Anxiety over religious rights has become particularly strong of late. A rising number of court cases concern religious business owners being sued for their refusal to provide services for events to which they object. Last week, the Supreme Court, for the seventh time, delayed a decision on whether to hear arguments in one such case, despite the fact that, with Judge Gorsuch on the bench, the court is back at full strength.

And a bipartisan federal bill has been introduced in Congress to expand the scope of the federal Civil Rights Act to outlaw discrimination not only based on race, color, gender, religion and national origin but also on behavior deeply objectionable to many religious Americans.

Last year, the Obama-appointed chairman of the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights said that “religious freedom” and “religious liberty” stand “for nothing except hypocrisy,” are merely “code words” for intolerance and “Christian supremacy,” and must therefore yield before anti-discrimination laws.

With that sort of legislation being considered by lawmakers, and that sort of rhetoric coming from a federal official, it is time for both houses of Congress to take the issue of religious rights seriously, and craft and pass a law that, once and for all, will forestall the undermining of Americans’ religious rights in the name of a “progress” that is, in fact, the very opposite.

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