There’s a lot to unpack regarding President Trump’s Executive Order on Religious Liberty. Most of the analysis centers on the Executive Order itself but what should not be lost is what comes next.
This is a two-step process. This first step is the Executive Order. It plays the role of the warm up band at a concert. You kind of like the band but you’re really waiting for the main show. The second step will be when the governmental agencies start to “issue guidance” on religious liberty practices carried out by the federal government. Now that will be the main show! That is when The Rolling Stones take the stage and the members of this band will be leaded singer Attorney General Jeff Sessions and bass player HHS Secretary Tom Price. It could be beautiful music for evangelicals.
Look, here’s the deal: The language in this Executive Order is overall pretty generic and doesn’t really say much from a policy and legal perspective. You know you’re playing it safe when the ACLU isn’t suing you! I mean, it doesn’t say anything SPECIFICALLY about defending people of faith from discrimination in the workplace, schools, military, etc. Clearly The White House had no desire to pick a fight with the LGBT community and risk a bunch of new lawsuits. It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to figure that out. HOWEVER, the most important line in the entire EO comes in Section 4. It reads:
Religious Liberty Guidance. In order to guide all agencies in complying with relevant Federal law, the Attorney General shall, as appropriate, issue guidance interpreting religious liberty protections in Federal law.
In other words, The White House is giving Attorney General Jeff Sessions room to work in directives and agency guidance when it comes to these issues of discrimination against people of faith. What does that look like? It means guidelines can be issued that would protect religious universities from harassment; contractors would not be discriminated against because of their faith; military chaplains would have increased protections for speaking out publicly about their faith, etc. The bottom line is to expect more religious freedom and conscience protection guidelines coming from the AG office and HHS as well. This may take a few months or even longer but trust me, it’s coming. This is the upside to the Executive Order and why it lays the groundwork for more to come in the future.
Now, let me turn to President Trump’s speech in the Rose Garden on Thursday. Let’s begin with this: the fact that a President of the United States held an event like this is encouraging news for evangelicals. You ain’t getting’ this with Hillary Clinton! So that’s a victory right there. Trump should be commended for embracing evangelicals as much as he has. Many republican politicians love evangelicals during the campaign season and treat them as an afterthought when in office. President Trump has shown that he’s different. He’s proved it through the first three plus months of his presidency and this was another notch in the evangelical belt. Now, while the Executive Order wasn’t much to write home about, the speech itself was REALLY REALLY good. Better than the Executive Order! Imagine if the language in his script was part of the EO. Read these quotes:
"Faith is deeply embedded into the history of our country, the spirit of our founding and the soul of our nation. We will not allow people of faith to be targeted, bullied or silenced anymore."
“No American should be forced to choose between the dictates of the federal government and the tenets of their faith.”
“With this executive order, we are ending the attacks on your religious liberty, and we are proudly reaffirming America’s leadership role as a nation that protects religious freedom for everyone.”
"We are giving churches their voices back. No one should be censoring sermons or targeting pastors."
"Freedom is not a gift from government; freedom is a gift from God.”
But despite all the strong rhetoric, the key line was this one:
“With this executive order, we also make clear that the federal government will never ever penalize any person for their protected religious beliefs. That is why I am today directing the Department of Justice to develop new rules to ensure these religious protections are afforded to all Americans.”
This is what I was referring to above regarding the new guidelines/rules coming soon. If President Trump is really serious about protecting religious liberty for people of faith, then he’ll need to not only have the Justice Department stand firm on their commitment to, “ensure these religious protections” are actually protected but also use some political capital and the bully pulpit to make it very clear. That’s where the rubber meets the road because the controversy will begin at some point in the second step of this process and the heat will increase. Now we wait to see how it develops. But one thing we’ve learned is President Trump has been loyal to evangelicals because they’ve been loyal to him. We’ll see if it holds on religious liberty.