One Year Later: How Trump’s Executive Order Protects Free Speech and Religious Liberty

By Nancy Flory Published on May 10, 2018

May 4th marked the one-year anniversary of President Trump’s Executive Order Promoting Free Speech and Religious Liberty. The Family Research Council (FRC) recently issued a brief explaining the impact that order has had on the protection and priority of religious freedom over this last year.

Departments Affected by Trump’s 2017 Executive Order

Because of Trump’s order, there have been policy changes in several federal departments. The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), the Department of Justice (DOJ), the Department of Defense (DOD) and the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) all saw changes over the last year.

The HHS:

  • Enabled at least 44 schools that provide an education for over 148,000 students to continue operating; and,
  • Protected entities which are part of umbrella groups annually providing about 13.7 million people with health care and other social services.

The executive order, according to FRC, “significantly advanced religious freedom.” Here’s how:

U.S. Department of Agriculture

Just days after President Trump signed the order, policy changes were implemented at the USDA. USDA Secretary Sonny Perdue issued a statement. He affirmed a “commitment to safeguarding every American’s First Amendment rights. This included the right to free speech and the right to free religious exercise.”

USDA’s Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS) stated that employees and supervisors are “free to engage in speech about religion. [They may] also express their sincere religious views without fear of sanctions.” Employers who wish to “display religious icons, religious pamphlets, or faith-based messages in publicly available work areas or on public websites” may do so. Most important, USDA employees “must act to avoid the limiting or chilling of protected speech.”

FSIS clarified further:

Opinions about same-sex marriage, gender identity, and sexual morality are all matters of public importance. Moreover, people often have different perspectives on these topics, which are sometimes informed by their religious beliefs, and feel the need to discuss them. USDA respects the First Amendment rights of USDA personnel, as well as non-USDA personnel working at facilities inspected by USDA, to share their varying viewpoints on these topics, whether through oral discussion, the display or distribution of literature, or other means.

Department of Justice

On October 26, 2017, the DOJ issued a memo issuing guidance titled “Federal Law Protections for Religious Liberty.” The guidance “explains the legal framework of religious liberty in detail and illuminates for other executive branch agencies how religious liberty is protected in federal law,” FRC’s brief states. The DOJ has supported the religious freedom of people like baker Jack Phillips. Phillips refused to bake a cake for a same-sex couple against his religious beliefs. According to FRC, “The DOJ’s message to courts that it favors protecting the religious freedom of people … shows that the executive branch is prioritizing the First Amendment and religious liberty.”

Department of Health and Human Services — Contraception Mandate Exemption

On October 6, 2017, HHS “issued rules which would protect religious organizations (such as the Little Sisters of the Poor). [It also protects] other groups from having to compromise their faith or moral convictions or face millions of dollars in fines.” The federal government was instructed to “consider how best ‘to address conscience-based objections’ to the HHS contraceptive mandate.”

At least 354 organizations challenged the mandate in court. The exemption is still being contested in court by activists. The “regulations authorizing the exemption are halted for now [and] those covered by the exemption and the people they serve can know HHS is working to ensure they are protected,” states the FRC.

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Without the mandate exemption, groups like the 44 schools would be in trouble. Those students would have likely lost their school choice but for Trump’s order.

“While not all have final relief in the HHS mandate litigation yet, this is primarily because anti-faith advocates insist on trying to halt the new HHS exemption in the courts, wrote the FRC. “Even so, though the regulation authorizing the exemption is temporarily blocked from operation, these individuals and organizations are in a better position now than they were under the Obama administration.”

Department of Health and Human Services Expands Office for Civil Rights

Also following Trump’s order, the HHS created a Conscience and Religious Freedom Division within the Office for Civil Rights (OCR). This division investigates complaints of discrimination against people based on their religious beliefs. Acting HHS Secretary Eric Hargan said, “The Founding Fathers knew that a nation that respects conscience rights is more diverse and more free, and OCR’s new division will help make that vision a reality.” Trump’s proposed regulation will “enforce existing federal conscience laws prohibiting government discrimination against people because of their beliefs about abortion and related services.”

FRC states that “those bringing claims of discrimination due to their religious or moral convictions will now have the same protections as those claiming other types of discrimination.”

Department of Defense

One of the most obvious cases of anti-religious discrimination involved an Air Force colonel who was disciplined because he refused to sign a certificate of appreciation for the same-sex spouse of an airman. Although he asked his superior to sign it (which he did), the colonel was reprimanded. The Air Force said the colonel had broken regulations barring sexual orientation discrimination. In the end, the Air Force reversed its findings based in large part to Trump’s order. The FRC believes that the DOD “still needs to make clear through policy changes that the religious freedom of others in his position will be protected.”

Work to be Done

Many of Obama’s policies demand “affirmation of categories.” These include sexual orientation and gender identity. They remain in place, states the FRC. They “hang as a cloud over religious freedom insofar as they could be used to force people to violate their sincerely held religious beliefs on these matters.” The FRC believes that certain policies still need to be repealed or amended with clarifications that protect religious freedom. DOD regulations still allow hormone treatments for transgendered people. The HHS still requires “federally regulated health care organizations and providers to provide gender transition services.” Other departments, such as HUD, Department of Labor and General Services Administration still have regulations that prohibit discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity. These regulations and policies should be addressed, states the FRC, to “ensure greater protection of religious freedom in the executive branch.”

“In addition to expressly protecting and prioritizing religious freedom, President Trump’s Executive Order Promoting Free Speech and Religious Liberty has had a tangible impact on the way the issue has been dealt with in multiple federal agencies over the past year,” writes the FRC. “While we must continue to strive to protect religious freedom, the executive order significantly advanced religious freedom and should be celebrated on its one-year anniversary.”

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