Church leaders view religious freedom order as positive step

IMAGE: CNS photo/Jim Lo Scalzo, EPA

By Carol Zimmermann

WASHINGTON (CNS) — Many religious leaders viewed President
Donald Trump’s executive order on religious freedom, which he signed in a White
House Rose Garden ceremony May 4, as a step in the right direction.

In a
ceremony for the National Day of Prayer prior to signing the executive order,
Trump told the assembled religious leaders: “We’re taking big steps to
protect religious liberty” and he assured them the government “won’t
stand for religious discrimination.”

religious leaders, including Washington Cardinal Donald W. Wuerl, offered
prayers during the ceremony. Just prior to the event, Cardinal Wuerl and
Cardinal Daniel N. DiNardo of Galveston-Houston, president of the U.S.
Conference of Catholic Bishops, met with Trump about the order.

In an
interview with Catholic News Service at Reagan National Airport just after the
White House ceremony, Cardinal DiNardo said the meeting with the president was
brief but productive.

Earlier, in a statement, the cardinal said the executive order “begins the process of
alleviating the serious burden of the HHS mandate,” referring to the
mandate issued by the federal Department of Health and Human Services requiring
most religious employers to provide coverage of artificial birth control for
their employees even if they morally oppose it.

Cardinal DiNardo also stressed that the U.S. bishops will “have to review
the details of any regulatory proposals.”

The text
of the order, “Promoting Free Speech and Religious Liberty,” states
that cabinet offices “shall consider issuing amended regulations,
consistent with applicable law, to address conscience-based objections to the
preventive-care mandate.”

the White House ceremony, Trump told some of the Little Sisters of the Poor in
the crowd: “Your long ordeal will soon be over.” The sisters are just
one of the groups that challenged the federal contraceptive mandate all the way
to the U.S. Supreme Court.

Loraine Marie Maguire, superior of the Little Sisters’ Baltimore province, said
in a statement that the sisters are “grateful for the president’s order
and look forward to the agencies giving us an exemption so that we can continue
caring for the elderly poor and dying” without fear of government

aspect of the order is a weakening of what Trump called the “unfair”
Johnson Amendment during the May 4 event. The 1954 amendment bans churches and
nonprofit organizations of all types from participating in partisan political
activity at the risk of losing their tax-exempt status.

told the religious leaders that the order’s attempt to lessen restrictions of
the amendment will be “giving our churches their voices back.”

order states the Treasury Department shall ensure and “respect and protect
the freedom of persons and organizations to engage in religious and political

It also
calls for department officials to “not take any adverse action against any
individual, house of worship, or other religious organization” for
speaking about “moral or political issues from a religious

religious liberty, the order is not very specific. It states: “In order to
guide all agencies in complying with relevant federal law, the attorney general
shall, as appropriate, issue guidance interpreting religious liberty
protections in federal law.”

DiNardo, in his statement, stressed that in recent years, “people of faith
have experienced pressing restrictions on religious freedom from both the
federal government and state governments that receive federal funding.”

noted that church agencies have specifically experienced such a restriction in
adoption, education, health care and other social services, where he said
“widely held moral and religious beliefs, especially regarding the
protection of human life as well as preserving marriage and family, have been
maligned in recent years as bigotry or hostility.”

disagreement on moral and religious issues is not discrimination; instead, it
is the inevitable and desirable fruit of a free, civil society marked by
genuine religious diversity,” he added.

DiNardo told CNS that the executive order emphasizes that there should
“not be an overly intrusive federal government” involved when a
person or group is exercising one’s faith.

He also
said the president seems to be putting some of these religious liberty issues directly
in the hands of federal departments and the attorney general, which he called
“an important dimension” and a “good way to have this

White House did not release the full text of the order prior to its signing. A
draft of an earlier version of the order, which included stronger language, was
leaked and published Feb. 1 in The Nation magazine.

the new order, Cardinal DiNardo said in his statement that the bishops will
“continue to advocate for permanent relief from Congress on issues of
critical importance to people of faith,” noting that religious freedom is
“a fundamental right that should be upheld by all branches of government
and not subject to political whims.”

Garnett, professor of law at the University of Notre Dame, said in an email to
Catholic News Service that the order will likely be viewed as a commitment from
the administration that it wants to protect religious liberty. “In terms
of specifics, however, the order does very little and does not address a number
of pressing and important questions.”

Sister Donna Markham, president and CEO of Catholic Charities USA, also
welcomed the order and said the organization “looks forward to reviewing
the details” of it with the hope that applying it will “allow
Catholic Charities agencies to continue to serve all their clients in
accordance with their inherent dignity while at the same time preserving the
freedom of these agencies to serve in conformity with our beliefs.”

to this story was Chaz Muth.

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Zimmermann on Twitter: @carolmaczim



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