Agencies Take Steps to Support Religious Liberty

Last Friday, the Trump administration took steps to reinforce the religious liberty rights of Americans. Per the direction of the President in his executive order signed on the National Day of Prayer, the Department of Justice (DOJ) issued an extensive guidance for all federal agencies on religious freedom. In addition, again in response to the President’s order, the Departments of Health and Human Services (HHS), Treasury, and Labor issued interim final rules on conscience protections under the existing health care framework.

“This is another promise kept by the Trump administration,” said Dr. Jerry A. Johnson, President & CEO of NRB. “While not the end of the battle, it is encouraging to see our nation’s leaders work to rectify some of the wrongs against people of faith during the previous eight years. Respect for the U.S. Constitution’s religious liberty guarantees is common sense to many Americans, and it is a breath of fresh air to see our government taking proactive steps to ensure them.”

The HHS rules address concerns of ministries and other organizations, including the Little Sisters of the Poor, that were pressed by the Obama administration to violate their consciences in order to comply with its mandate that all new health plans cover abortion-inducing drugs or else face massive and crippling fines. Under the new orders, many entities, including small businesses, with sincerely held religious beliefs or moral convictions against that mandate will now be exempt. Using key terms from the Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA) signed into law by President Bill Clinton, the new regulation concluded the previous federal position “constituted a substantial burden on the religious exercise of many such entities or individuals” and it said “such compliance did not serve a compelling interest and was not the least restrictive means of serving a compelling interest.”

The DOJ guidance delineated 20 principles that departments and agencies across the Executive Branch should put to practical use in order to uphold religious liberty. The guidance states, “Religious liberty is not merely a right to personal religious beliefs or even to worship in a sacred place.  It also encompasses religious observance and practice.  Except in the narrowest circumstances, no one should be forced to choose between living out his or her faith and complying with the law.”  Among other principles, it adds, “Americans do not give up their freedom of religion by participating in the marketplace, partaking of the public square or interacting with government.” Notably, DOJ states that religious employers should not be forced to hire individuals who don’t share their beliefs, and the government may not include conditions in its grants and contracts that would burden religious freedom. It also specifically commands the IRS not to enforce the infamous Johnson amendment. Moreover, it reinforces RFRA and says that law protects not only individuals, but also “organizations, associations, and at least some for-profit corporations.”

Pressed on these new rules later in the day on Friday, White House Press Secretary Sarah Sanders said, “The President believes that the freedom to practice one’s faith is a fundamental right in this country, and I think all of us do.  And that's all that today was about – our federal government should always protect that right.  And as long as Donald Trump is President, he will.”

By Aaron Mercer, Vice President of Government Relations

Published: October 13, 2017

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