Hundreds of faith leaders already oppose Trump’s planned ‘religious liberty’ order

They say religious freedom is “already protected by the First Amendment.”

CREDIT: AP/Evan Vucci
CREDIT: AP/Evan Vucci

News broke Tuesday afternoon that president Donald Trump is preparing an executive order on “religious liberty” that is expected to offer exemptions for people who claim religious objections to same-sex marriage, abortion, transgender identity, and premarital sex.

There’s just one catch: many faith leaders already oppose it.

According to POLITICO, Trump administration officials are planning to unveil the new order on Thursday to coincide with the National Day of Prayer. Details of the order are still under wraps, but the text is reportedly similar to an alleged draft leaked to The Nation on February 1. That draft purported to require government agencies to grant sweeping religious exemptions to people and organizations that reject same-sex marriage and other things on religious grounds — regardless of whether faith-fueled disagreement is “compelled by, or central to, a system of religious belief.”

Rabbi David Saperstein, who recently ended his tenure as U.S. religious freedom ambassador for the State Department, told members of Congress in February he believes the proposed order “raises significant constitutional problems.”

At the time, conservative-leaning faith groups such as the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops urged Trump to sign the draft order, saying it was a “positive step toward allowing all Americans to be able to practice their faith without severe penalties from the federal government.” Russell Moore, head of the Southern Baptist Convention’s political arm, also encouraged the president to sign on.

But religious freedom experts and other faith leaders were quick to raise questions about whether its provisions were lawful. Rabbi David Saperstein, who recently ended his tenure as U.S. religious freedom ambassador for the State Department, told members of Congress in February he believes the proposed order poses “significant constitutional problems.”

“I think it raises very serious equal protection issues,” he said, noting that the leaked draft could allow government contractors the ability to refuse services based on their religious beliefs.

Saperstein’s concern was echoed by a chorus of clergy two weeks later, when a full-page ad decrying the draft appeared in the pages of POLITICO. The ad, which was signed by more than 1,300 faith leaders, blasted the order for “enshrining one [conservative] religious perspective” above others.

“Although it purports to strengthen religious freedom, what this order would actually do is misuse this freedom, turning it into a weapon to discriminate against broad swaths of our nation, including LGBTQ people, women, and children in foster care,” it read. “We urge you to turn away from all proposals that would abuse religious freedom, including any executive orders on this issue that are currently under consideration.”

“Furthermore, freedom of religion guarantees us the right to hold any belief we choose and to act on our religious beliefs, but it does not allow us to harm others in the name of those beliefs.”

The letter, which included the signatures of prominent LGBTQ clergy members such as Bishop Gene Robinson, also pointed out that religious freedom is “already protected by the First Amendment and federal law.” It went on to note that many religious traditions and faith leaders see the need to protect LGBTQ people as a “principle of faith” which “needs to be respected as well.”

“Furthermore, freedom of religion guarantees us the right to hold any belief we choose and to act on our religious beliefs, but it does not allow us to harm others in the name of those beliefs,” it read.

Denying service to someone because of their sexuality is particularly unpopular with Americans in most religious groups. A 2016 poll from PRRI found that almost every major faith group in the country opposes religiously based service refusals, with strong majorities of Black Protestants, white mainline Protestants, Mormons, Catholics (both white and Hispanic), Muslims, and Jews standing against allowing a “small business owner refuse to provide products or services to gay or lesbian people on religious grounds.” One faith group, however, stood apart: 50 percent of white evangelical Protestants support the practice.

The order comes as the Trump administration continues to be mired in court battles over the president’s Muslim ban, which has been described as an infringement on religious liberty for discriminating against people who claim the Islamic faith. The Trump administration continues to argue that the order — which has been amended once already — is about national security, but federal judges that have halted both iterations of the ban say its clear intention is to bar Muslims from entering the country.