The Trump administration is receiving high marks so far for its religious liberty record from many advocates for the First Amendment freedom, Baptist Press reports. The July 30 announcement of a religious liberty task force in the Department of Justice (DOJ) and the Aug. 10 release of a Department of Labor policy directive to protect religious free exercise are the latest in a series of administration actions applauded by defenders of freedom of belief and practice. Yet, some advocates also say more remains to be done by this White House to safeguard religious liberty.
In commending the Trump administration, religious freedom defenders cite as evidence of its laudable record in the first year and a half the rollback of the Obama-era abortion/contraception mandate for religious non-profit organizations and the President’s nomination to the Supreme Court and other courts of judges who interpret the Constitution based on its original meaning.
“This administration’s work to support religious freedom has been truly historic,” said Kellie Fiedorek, legal counsel for Alliance Defending Freedom (ADF), in a phone interview with Baptist Press. “I don’t know that we’ve seen another administration show this level of commitment to Americans’ First Amendment freedoms, and it’s timely in that so many Americans and so many of [ADF’s clients] are facing hostility and persecution by state and local governments. So to see this commitment by the Trump administration is very welcome and to be commended.”
The Trump administration has “taken some very positive steps,” The Heritage Foundation’s Emilie Kao told BP by phone. Kao, director of Heritage’s Richard and Helen DeVos Center for Religion and Civil Society, pointed to the work of Attorney General Jeff Sessions in particular.
Sessions, who heads DOJ, “is putting the correct emphasis on religious freedom as our First Freedom in the Constitution and the Bill of Rights, which is unfortunately very needed now because people seem to have forgotten that this is our first freedom and that it’s enshrined in the Constitution and that it is so important to the peaceful pluralism that we’ve enjoyed in this country for so long,” she said.
As in the past, the issue is vital for Baptists, an advocate for freedom of religion told BP.
“Religious liberty is an issue of fundamental importance for Baptists from the beginning of the American experiment to today,” said Travis Wussow, general counsel and vice president for public policy of the Southern Baptist Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission (ERLC). “It is a right granted by God but one that must be defended anew in every age because every generation brings new challenges.”
The ERLC “will continue working with this administration and all branches and levels of government to ensure religious liberty is protected,” Wussow said in written comments.
Individuals, religious charities and religious institutions still face “huge challenges,” especially those who believe only in male-female marriage, Kao said.
“The Trump administration really needs to protect the people who are increasingly becoming the minority, the dissenting voices on these issues of sexuality, marriage and the family. The United States government has always protected dissenters and nonconformists when it’s taken positions on controversial issues like the military draft or the death penalty or abortion, and it should be the same way on marriage,” she told BP.
The administration could do more to protect adoption and foster-care agencies, Kao said. The opioid crisis is driving “unprecedented numbers” of children into foster care, she told BP. About 92,000 of the 440,000 children in foster care find themselves in the system because of their parents’ drug addictions, Kao said.
“One key measure of our country’s commitment to religious freedom abroad is how we treat the refugee fleeing persecution,” Wussow said in a news release accompanying the letter. “Unfortunately, while attention to religious freedom is growing, the number of refugees admitted to the United States — including the admission of persecuted Christians — is shrinking. Our commitment is wide in speech, but is it deep enough in action to welcome refugees upon our shores? We are expected to do both.”
The new DOJ task force is a follow-up to the department’s 2017 guidance that instructed agencies to protect religious freedom, Fiedorek said. The task force will help the DOJ implement the guidance “by ensuring that all of the various Justice Department components are upholding that guidance in the cases that they bring and defend, the arguments they make in court, how they conduct their operations, and the policies and regulations that they’re adopting,” she said.
The Department of Labor directive called for its employees to abide by recent court decisions and presidential orders on religious freedom, thereby practicing neutrality toward religious beliefs.