Trump’s new faith-based and community initiative renews concerns

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WASHINGTON — President Donald J. Trump signed a new executive order May 3 that concerns U.S. faith-based and community organizations. The new order establishes the “White House Faith and Opportunity Initiative,” which replaces similar faith-based strategies already created by former presidents, including George W. Bush and Barack Obama. The basic concept is to remove barriers that prevent full governmental support for faith-based and community organizations that uniquely provide for the needs of people at the local and personal level.

“Faith-based and community organizations have tremendous ability to serve individuals, families, and communities through means that are different from those of government and with capacity that often exceeds that of government. These organizations lift people up, keep families strong, and solve problems at the local level,” reads the executive order.

[Mr. Gray/Flickr.]

Trump announced his new order at the National Day of Prayer event, during which he told attendees, “Faith is more powerful than government, and nothing is more powerful than [the Abrahamic g]od.”

The initiative is the third big Trump administration move that directly focuses on faith-based issues, which was one of Trump’s campaign commitments. The first came in October 2017 when the U.S Attorney General issued new religious freedom guidelines for federal offices. As we reported at the time:

The new Department of Justice guidelines outline 20 different principles in which religious liberty might be affected, such as in health care as seen with the 2014 Hobby Lobby case, in hiring practices, the expression of religion on public property, and in workplace accommodations, to name just a few. The document also outlines, or seeks to clarify, points made by the federal Religious Freedom Restoration Act, which was originally signed into law by President Bill Clinton in 1993.

The second came in January when the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) proposed changes to strengthen its established “conscience protections.”  As we reported in January:

The thrust of the rule is to strengthen HHS’ ability to police the regulations already in place and to give OCR and its new division the “overall” authority to do so. Within the proposed rules, HHS specifically singles out certain medical cases that typically illicit conscience- or religion-based objections. These procedures and medical related actions include, abortion, sterilization, assisted suicide, any ACA mandates, the execution of advance directives, exemptions from compulsory health care and screenings including vaccinations and mental health treatment, and religion-based, non-medical treatments. “With this proposed regulation, the Department seeks to more effectively and comprehensively enforce Federal health care conscience and associated anti-discrimination laws,” the rule reads.

The new HHS rules are still waiting approval. However, since our previous report, the American Medical Association has publicly asked HHS director Alex Azar to abandon the proposal citing that it would undermine medical care. In a March 27 letter to Azar, AMA executive vice president and CEO Dr. James L. Madara wrote:

The AMA believes that, as currently drafted, the proposed rule could seriously undermine patients’ access to necessary health services and information, negatively impact federally-funded biomedical research activities, and create confusion and uncertainty among physicians, other health care professionals, and health care institutions about their legal and ethical obligations to treat patients.

The AMA press release notes that the proposed HHS rules are part of a “broader White House effort to protect religious rights” — a statement that is now backed by this third religion-focused push by the Trump administration.

As with previous faith-related announcements, the new initiative has garnered applause and concern along the same sociopolitical lines. Vocal support came largely from evangelical Christian groups. Evangelical preacher Paula White told Religion News Service, “I could not be more proud to stand with President Trump as he continues to stand shoulder to shoulder with communities of faith. This order is a historic action, strengthening the relationship between faith and government in the United States and the product will be countless, transformed lives.”

Similarly, Family Research Council president Tony Perkins, who attended the signing of the executive order, said in a press release, “The announcement of President Trump’s faith initiative is further evidence that this administration is not only committed to protecting our first freedom but in also acknowledging that our faith in [the Abrahamic g]od contributes to the guidance and well-being of our country. I look forward to working with the president to make sure the community of faith will be able to bring hope and help to people in the United States and around the globe.”

By contrast, spokespeople for both the Anti-Defamation League, a Jewish-based civil rights organization and Lady Liberty League, a Pagan civil rights organization, expressed cautious reserve. ADL CEO Jonathan A. Greenblatt, wrote: “ADL has a deep appreciation for the vital role religious institutions have historically played in addressing many of our nation’s most pressing social needs, but today’s executive order is a step backwards for religious liberty. It rolls back constitutional safeguards against religious coercion in federally funded programs.”

Rev. Selena Fox of Lady Liberty League said, “In response to the current administration’s faith andoOpportunity initiative, Circle Sanctuary’s Lady Liberty League supports private and public actions that promote protection of religious liberties. We are, however, cautious and will be watching the actions that implement the initiative. We are concerned that there are inadequate provisions that will prevent ‘religious freedom from being used to promote discrimination.”

National secular-based civil rights leaders were far more direct in their criticism of the new executive order. Americans United for the Separation of Church and State‘s Maggie Garrett wrote in reaction: “Under the guise of religious freedom, this executive order further entrenches the Administration’s policies to allow religion to discriminate. At the same time, it strips the limited religious liberty protections that exist for individuals who use the government-funded social services.”

Garrett acknowledges that past presidents did pursue faith-based initiatives and says that the barriers between government and religion are already “too lax.” However, she goes on to say:

What this administration calls “barriers” are really important safeguards that protect the religious freedom of those using the social services and the taxpayers….The executive order strips religious freedom protections for people who use government services put in place by President Barack Obama. The safeguards had ensured that if someone objected to the religious character of their government-funded social service provider, they would have access to an alternative provider.

Daniel Mach, director of the ACLU Program on Freedom of Religion and Belief, published a similar response. He wrote, “Freedom of religion is one of our most fundamental and cherished rights,but that freedom does not give any of us the right to harm other people, to impose our beliefs on others, or to discriminate. The ACLU will be watching this initiative closely to ensure that it does not promote policies that violate these core principles. Many in the U.S., including people of faith, don’t want to give taxpayer-funded agencies or businesses open to the public a license to discriminate.”

What are the basis of their concerns? The new initiative, which first removes all similar objectives established by past presidents, calls for the inclusion of a faith-based liaison in every federal agency and office, which does not exist at this time. These liaisons would help enforce the U.S. Attorney General’s new rules and the proposed HHS rules, and they would also act as a “point of contact” for the administrator of the entire initiative. That administrator would then directly be an adviser to the president through the White House’s Office of Public Liaison.

In addition, the new executive order states that the initiative liaisons will seek opinion from faith-based and community leaders outside of the government. It reads:

From time to time and consistent with applicable law, consult with and seek information from experts and various faith and community leaders from outside the federal government, including those from State, local, and tribal governments, identified by the Office of Public Liaison, the Domestic Policy Council, and the Centers for Faith and Opportunity Initiatives. These experts and leaders shall be identified based on their expertise in a broad range of areas in which faith-based and community organizations operate, including poverty alleviation, religious liberty, strengthening marriage and family, education, solutions for substance abuse and addiction, crime prevention and reduction, prisoner reentry, and health and humanitarian services.

While the actual initiative uses both the terms “faith-based” and “community,” the press coming from the White House has focused predominantly on the religion-based aspects of the new program. The announcement, for example, was titled, “President Donald J. Trump Stands Up For Religious Freedom In The United States.” That document is divided in to various discussions topics with headings, all of which are religion-focused: “A Voice in the White House,” “Prioritizing Religious Freedom,” “One Nation Under God,” “Protecting Religious Freedom,” and, “Protecting the Sanctity of Life.”

This press announcement also directly refers to recent issues and cases at the forefront of religious freedom debates, including the abortion, contraceptives, and marriage equality. “The Trump administration has taken a stand on behalf of religious liberty in the courts: it supported baker Jack Phillips’ right to operate his bakery in accordance with his religious beliefs,” it reads for example.

In a commentary, one reporter for New York Magazine labeled the entire move a public relations strategy. Ed Gilgore writes, “All in all, it is clear that this is another of a series of steps by Trump to solidify his relationship with his largest and most loyal constituency, and perhaps scandal-proof it against disclosures of heathenish presidential and prepresidential[sic] behavior yet to come. To an extent unseen in the White House for a long time, Trump is treating conservative evangelicals not as allies, but as partners, since unlike George W. Bush, he cannot credibly pose as a brother-in-faith, it’s probably the best he can do to keep them inside his tent.”

Whether its a simply a well-timed PR move or not, the order is signed, and religious freedom advocates are now watching closely to see how this new initiative will be funded, how it play out in real time. How will non-Christian voices be included or affected, and what burdens, if any, will be place on various marginalized groups?