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Administration gains high marks on religious liberty

WASHINGTON (BP) — The Trump administration is receiving high marks so far for its religious liberty record from many advocates for the First Amendment freedom.

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,” she told BP. “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.”

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.

Meanwhile, some states and cities have essentially shut down Roman Catholic and other faith-based agencies because they refuse to place children with same-sex couples. Nine states have laws that require child welfare agencies to place children with same-sex couples in adoption, foster care or both, according to Reuters News Service. They are California, Maryland, Massachusetts, New Jersey, Nevada, New York, Oregon, Rhode Island and Wisconsin.

“We see more examples of government mandates that are limiting the ability of religious charities to serve their neighbors,” Kao told BP.

In a Aug. 12 opinion piece in USA Today, ERLC President Russell Moore called for religious freedom protections for adoption and foster care agencies. The ERLC supports a congressional proposal that would bar government discrimination against child welfare organizations that act on their religious beliefs.

The legislation “works to ensure that Catholics can be Catholic and Baptists can be Baptist, while being active participants within civil society,” Moore wrote. “As Americans, we need to come together, put aside the politics and work to make sure as many children as possible are able to find the loving home every child deserves.”

ADF’s Fiedorek said the situation for the new administration is “really more of fixing the problems that existed under the Obama administration, and that takes time. So it seems that the administration is working as quickly as they can to address the significant infringements on freedom that happened during the Obama administration.”

The ERLC and others have also expressed concern about the Trump administration’s changes in the refugee resettlement program that affect global religious freedom. In an Aug. 7 letter, Moore and other members of the Evangelical Immigration Table (EIT) wrote Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, Department of Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen and Ambassador at Large for Religious Freedom Sam Brownback to urge an increase to at least 75,000 refugees in 2019.

In the letter, the EIT members say religious minorities have suffered as the number of refugees admitted to the United States has fallen by about 70 percent from the first six months of 2016 to the same period in 2018. Most dramatically, the change has affected Christians and other religious minorities in the Middle East. In the first half of 2016, 1,574 Middle East Christians were admitted, but only 23 were resettled in the first six months this year, marking a decline of 98.5 percent, according to the letter.

“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.

In addition, the Trump administration actions commended by religious liberty advocates include:

— A new Department of Health and Human Services rule in October 2017 that exempts employers who object to the health-care abortion/contraception mandate based on their religious beliefs or moral convictions. The 2011 regulation required employers to provide their workers with coverage for contraceptives, including those that can potentially induce abortions.

— President Trump’s January 2017 nomination of Neil Gorsuch to the Supreme Court, as well as the July 2018 selection of Brett Kavanaugh to the high court. Since joining the high court, Gorsuch has cast votes supported by religious liberty advocates in wins for Trinity Lutheran Church out of Missouri in 2017 and Masterpiece Cakeshop out of Colorado earlier this year. The Senate has yet to hold hearings and a vote on Kavanaugh. Religious freedom advocates also have welcomed many Trump appointments of appeals court and federal judges.

— The first-ever Ministerial to Advance Religious Freedom convened by the State Department in July in Washington, D.C. Delegations from more than 80 foreign governments met in an effort to combat persecution of and discrimination against people of all faiths. The event, which produced both a declaration and a plan of action, will be held again next year.

— Trump’s 2017 selection of Brownback, a devoted foe of overseas religious persecution during his years in Congress, as ambassador at large for international religious freedom.

— The DOJ’s defense of religious liberty in court.

— The HHS’ establishment of the Conscience and Religious Freedom Division in January 2018.

— The DOJ’s effort to increase prosecutions on violence against religious individuals and houses of worship.