In what may be the biggest firestorm set off by a Trump executive order to date, surpassing even the widespread angry response to the Trump immigration order, a draft of an executive order circulating in the Trump administration would dramatically expand the legal protections for individuals, organizations and employers on the grounds of their religious beliefs, and as the WSJ reports, would potentially allow the denial of services to gay and transgender people, and contraception coverage for employees.
The draft is titled “Establishing a Government-Wide Initiative to Respect Religious Freedom.” While it hasn’t been signed and may never make it to President Donald Trump’s desk, advocacy groups see the draft order as a broad statement of intent from a president who courted conservative Christian voters during the campaign by promising to expand the role of religion in public life. As the WSJ adds, the draft order lays out many of the proposals that conservative Christians have been requesting for years, including legal protections for organizations that claim religious objections to providing a wide range of services. It also directs federal agencies to “avoid potential violations of Religious Freedom”, instructing officials not to “coerce” religious entities or individuals into “participating in activities that violate their conscience.”
If this order or a similar one were signed, it would immediately plunge Mr. Trump into a debate over religious freedom, gay rights and reproductive rights, which has churned through states and courts for years—most recently with the disputes over transgender people’s use of bathrooms. Some religious groups have argued that they should not have to violate their beliefs in business, education or as civil servants. Corporations and sports leagues have largely sided with civil-rights groups and threatened to cancel events over legislation viewed as discriminatory.
Gay and transgender rights groups have already pounced on the draft order, calling it a “license to discriminate” that would effectively gut many existing protections for LGBT people by allowing those who claimed religious objections to ignore them. “If the White House did even a fraction of the things that are in this draft executive order, that would be an unprecedented rollback of LGBT equality and rights,” said David Stacy, director of government affairs for the Human Rights Campaign. “This would provide a blanket exemption for religious organizations not to have to follow any statute that they say violates their religious beliefs.”
Perhaps hinting at the order, while speaking at the National Prayer Breakfast on Thursday morning, Trump reiterated his commitment to expanding the role of faith in the public square, vowing to repeal a law known as the Johnson Amendment that bars churches from engaging in political activity. Those deemed in violation risk losing their tax-exempt status. “I will get rid of and totally destroy the Johnson Amendment and allow our representatives of faith to speak freely and without fear of retribution,” Mr. Trump said.
The WSJ adds that it wasn’t immediately clear on Thursday exactly what the effects of the order would be if it were enacted as written. But all sides agreed its implications would be far-reaching, affecting the health-care industry, employment regulation and policy about who could receive government grants and contracts.
Many of these subjects are currently being litigated, like whether Catholic hospitals are required to provide hormone therapy or hysterectomies to transgender people. Conservative groups argued that the order simply makes explicit protections for religious expression that are already enshrined in law and in the constitution, following an administration that they considered hostile to religion. “Many Americans voted for Donald Trump based on concerns about what the other candidate might do with regard to religious liberty,” said Greg Baylor, a lawyer with the Alliance Defending Freedom, a conservative legal organization. The draft order, he said, “reflects a very different attitude by the new administration toward respecting the conscience of religious organizations.”
As the WSJ points out, “the draft order reveals a political tension for Mr. Trump, who has tried to position himself as both a champion of religious freedom and a friend to gays and lesbians—two political constituencies who have frequently squared off in court in recent years.”
On Tuesday, the Trump administration announced that a 2014 Obama administration executive order, which established new workplace protections for gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender people, would remain in place—prompting complaints from some Catholic and Protestant leaders. But Mr. Trump hardly won any plaudits from LGBT groups, which continued to castigate him through the week, assailing his executive orders on immigration and expressing doubts about his commitment to their causes. They said the draft order on Thursday better reflected the president’s priorities.
“Freedom of religion doesn’t mean private businesses and government officials providing public services have the right to turn people away because of who they are,” said Harper Jean Tobin, director of policy for the National Center for Transgender Equality. “That would really be out of step with some core values.”
Conservatives, naturally, saw things in a different light: “This is conceptually in keeping with what I anticipate from this administration,” Tony Perkins, founder of the Family Research Council, a conservative advocacy group, said of the draft order. “We’ve seen policies in the last eight years that have sought to marginalize and intimidate people of orthodox Christian faith. This simply says the government can’t bully you. The IRS can’t be used to silence you.”
In short: Trump continues to do what he vowed to do during his campaign and it is infuriating his opponents, although should this order pass, it would have the most profound social response yet from liberals around the nation. For now, the executive order remains in the trial balloon stage, but should enough grassroots support for it emerge, it is possible that Trump will ultimately sign it, in the process undoing a big part of Obama’s progressive agenda over the past 8 years, unleashing a social firestorm of angry protests.
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