A Religious Liberty Failure

It is often difficult to know what to make of this very strange Administration. Every day seems to bring a new self-generated controversy and it is often difficult to discern what is going on and why.

Sometimes, though, it is very clear what has happened — or more accurately, what has not happened. The case in point is the alleged religious liberty executive order issued last week to great fanfare. It was a splendid photo op, with the President surrounded by Catholic prelates, the Little Sisters of the Poor, and other religious leaders. The President spoke wonderful words about how committed our government is to defending religious liberty. There were smiles all around and much applause.

The problem is that the executive order is virtually useless, it accomplishes nothing, it misses an opportunity to implement important reforms, and it delivers nothing more than vague promises of possible future actions at undefined times.

The order contains six paragraphs. The first contains hortatory language about the importance of religious liberty, which is virtually indistinguishable from proclamations issued by the prior Administration. The last two paragraphs deal with legal procedure that has no particular importance. The middle three paragraphs is where the substance is supposed to be, but isn’t.

Paragraph 2 purports to grant legal protection to the free speech of religious non-profits and churchs that are incorporated under section 501(c)(3) of the Internal Revenue Code. It directs the Treasury Department not to enforce a legal provision known as the Johnson Amendment, which prohibits those organizations from engaging in partisan political activity such as open endorsement of candidates. Opinions differ about the Johnson Amendment. I happen to think it’s a good idea but many others disagree. The problem is, though, that the government has virtually never enforced that provision and the President can’t do anything to change the law itself — it can only be repealed by an act of Congress. Future administrations could easily begin enforcing the rule at any time — which would be particularly dangerous for any organization that foolishly relies on this executive order and begins engaging in partisan politics.

So this part of the executive order is actually completely devoid of any real content. It’s merely a promise not to do something that isn’t being done, without preventing it from being done in the future. Hold your applause.

Paragraph 3 is a particularly frustrating diappointment to those of us who have been battling over religious liberty the past few years, especially over the HHS contraception and abortion mandate. That is the cause of voluminous litigation that culminated in a directive from the Supreme Court that the government find some way to accommodate the religious liberty concerns of religious non-profits who object to the mandate. This executive order directs the relevant agencies to “consider issuing amended regulations, consistent with applicable law, to address conscience-based objections”.

“Consider”? That’s all? Remember, you can’t overturn statutes or regulations with a mere executive order, so the HHS mandate and its offensive non-exemption continues to be the law of the land. But the President, with the stroke of a pen or even with a mere oral order, could easily have directed the Justice Department to immediately settle all the litigation by granting the religious non-profits the same full exemption that is enjoyed by churches, and further directing the relevant agencies to develop regulations that would formalize that settlement into law. That would have resolved the HHS mandate controversy completely and it would have established a strong precedent for further conscience protection laws and regulations.

This is a tragic missed opportunity, and it directly calls into question the Administration’s competence and/or its sincerity about protecting religious freedom. It is a complete and absolute failure to follow through on explicit campaign promises — somehave even called it a betrayal.

Paragraph 4 is hardly worth mentioning. It directs the Attorney General to “issue guidance interpreting religious liberty protections”. This won’t come any time soon, since virtually no sub-cabinet Justice Department officials have been confirmed by the Senate and there isn’t even a nominee for the head of the crucial Civil Rights Division. And in any event, “guidance” does not have the same force of law as regulations or statutes, it does not have to be accepted by the courts and it can be overturned at any time by this or any future Administration. So this is another post-dated check for something that may be delivered someday by someone. Yawn.

This much bally-hooed executive order is a major failure. It provides no actual protection for religious freedom. It does nothing to change the law. It does nothing to reverse the hostility of the prior Administration towards those with traditional religious beliefs. It does nothing to protect religious contractors from discrimination by government agencies that disapprove of their beliefs. It is such a non-starter that even the ACLU has decided that it’s not worth challenging in court.

Many people, particularly religious conservatives, supported the President because they rightly feared the consequences for religious liberty if Hillary Clinton had been elected. But the President’s executive order uttely fails to deliver on expectations for imporoved protection of religious liberty. All we can hope is that the Administration will eventually get its act together, appoint good people to crucial executive positions, and implement concrete reforms to statutes and regulations that will give genuine and lasting protection to people and organizations of faith. Meanwhile, despite all the fanfare in the Rose Garden, the very real threats to religious freedom remain.

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