Trump’s Religious Liberty Order: Substance or Symbolism?

All of President Trump’s victory claims seem to be too little for conservatives and too much for liberals. This past Thursday, the “repeal and replace” healthcare bill passed the House with many conservatives and liberals crying foul for opposing reasons. On the same day, the president’s Religious Liberty and Free Speech Executive Order didn’t go far enough for many religious conservatives, but was perceived by most liberals as a violation of their rights. So, was the order substantive or symbolic?

First, let’s be clear that a presidential executive order does not become law or change law. Only the legislature can make or change laws. However, executive orders do direct the priorities and regulatory actions of agencies and offices of the executive branch. In other words, these orders direct how the president’s subordinates manage their responsibilities under the established laws.

In simple terms, this new Religious Liberty Order mandates two actions:

1. It directs the IRS not to “take adverse action” against churches participating in political activity that stops short of an endorsement of a candidate for office.

2. It provides “regulatory relief” for organizations that object on religious grounds to an Obamacare mandate that employer provided insurance cover certain objectionable health services, including contraception and abortion.

The first provision is to ease the pressure of the 1954 Johnson Amendment that allows the IRS to terminate a church’s tax-exempt status if they openly support or oppose political candidates (see my post, Feb. 5, 2017 for more details). Since an amendment is a law, the order only directs the IRS to not expand restrictions on churches beyond the law. Churches still can’t campaign or contribute to candidates.

The second provision directs agencies not to make additional regulations or “go after” companies and other organizations that declare religious objections to their insurance plan covering certain questionable health care services–especially contraception and abortion.

The greatest disappointment among many evangelicals regarding the order is that the final version did not contain an important provision in a leaked draft version. The earlier draft provided legal protection for businesses that would not offer goods and services to consumers they objected to on religious grounds, particularly LGBT consumers.

Being a conservative, I share in the disappointment that the order is more symbolic than substantive. I especially hoped to see the protection of business owners’ rights to determine whom they do business with. I think it is disgraceful that a business must offer its products or services to further the objectives of something the seller is morally opposed to. However, considering the reality of today’s world, I believe people of faith should, while making their views known, show gratitude and support for any and all movement by our government toward religious liberty.

I believe the President has clearly indicated his support for religious liberty, and we will see further strides in that direction. There are indications that he supported the earlier draft of the order that protected the right of businesses to withhold goods and services on religious grounds. But, certain influential advisors prevailed in their objections.

So, yes, this executive order was largely symbolic. But, I expect to see more executive orders that broaden religious liberties a step at a time. Also, with the better-balanced Supreme Court, and with another possible appointment coming within a year or two, we should see more decisions like the Hobby Lobby ruling in favor of religious convictions. The Constitution guarantees religious liberty, and we have a president, a Supreme Court, and a conservative Congress that will ultimately follow the Constitution. The new Washington leadership has been governing less than four months. Let’s celebrate the redirection from Obama’s disregard for Christian values, and wait to see where we stand in a couple of years. I am guardedly optimistic while putting every Washington decision and vote to the biblical test.

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