Trump’s ‘religious freedom’ executive order pleases no one

Conservatives like it enough to make nice, but they’re still expecting more.

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

President Donald Trump claimed his “religious freedom” executive order, signed Thursday as part of a National Day of Prayer celebration, fulfilled his campaign promises to religious conservatives. But many of them were left dissatisfied.

Politico’s initial report Tuesday that the executive order was on the calendar suggested it would closely resemble the draft leaked back in February, which singled out specific anti-LGBTQ and anti-abortion beliefs for protection. But during a briefing Wednesday night, the White House explained it would instead focus more narrowly on religious organizations’ political speech and Obamacare’s contraception mandate.

The official text of the signed order confirmed that it did not have the sweeping license to discriminate conservatives were hoping for — at least not on its face. How the order is implemented — particularly the sweeping directive to have the Department of Justice issue guidance protecting “religious liberty” — could still result in significant setbacks for LGBTQ equality, but that remains to be determined.

In the meantime, social conservatives are issuing mixed reactions to the order. Some are trying to make nice with the Trump administration while others decry it for not doing enough.

The Family Research Council (FRC), an anti-LGBTQ hate group, applauded the order. The group’s president, Tony Perkins, attended the order’s signing and called it a “a clear reflection of his campaign promise to protect the religious freedoms of Americans.” But there was coded language in Perkins’ response too; he called it a “significant first step to defending religious liberty,” which “starts the process” of ending the way organizations and individuals have been punished “simply for living according to their faith.” FRC isn’t complaining, but the group isn’t satisfied yet either.

The Alliance Defending Freedom (ADF) — another hate group , and one that has been on the forefront of fighting for Christians’ right to refuse service to LGBTQ people — similarly waffled between praise and admonition in its statement from its leader. Michael Farris said the executive order “provides hope” that Trump will fulfill his promise, but “leaves that promise as yet unfulfilled.” The order’s “vague instructions to federal agencies” fall short of the guarantees ADF had hoped for.

The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops is optimistic about the executive order’s impact on the HHS mandate, but “will have to review the details of any regulatory proposals,” said Cardinal Daniel DiNardo in a statement on behalf of the conference. He also lamented that more wasn’t done to protect those who oppose abortion and marriage equality, and whose beliefs “have been maligned in recent years as bigotry or hostility.”

Others were not so gracious to the Trump administration. The Heritage Foundation’s Ryan T. Anderson called the executive order “woefully inadequate.”

“Twice now, [Trump] has failed to stand up for commonsense policy on religious liberty when liberal opponents lashed out against it,” said Anderson.

Anderson was disappointed in how “rather weak” the order was compared to the original anti-LGBTQ draft that leaked back in February. “That draft protected the religious liberty rights of all Americans in very tailored ways that addressed the problems of today,” he said.

The Federalist’s David Harsanyi was also unimpressed, pining like Anderson for the “comprehensive relief” that would have been provided by the drafted order that previously leaked. “Trump’s executive order does little, and what little it does can be easily overturned,” he said.

And over at the National Review, David French called the executive order “worse than useless.”

“What will the administration do to protect religious freedom when the entire cultural Left mobilizes against it? We still don’t know,” he wrote. He called on the evangelicals who supported Trump to tell him “that the nation’s first liberty demands more respect — and more protection — than the dangerous nothingness of this executive order.”

Conservatives might be disappointed Trump didn’t make it easier for them to discriminate, but LGBTQ groups are not resting easy. The National Center for Transgender Equality’s Mara Keisling noted that “this vaguely worded order is clearly aimed at providing a license to discriminate against LGBT people, women, religious minorities, and others,” even if it leaves the “dirty work” for others in the administration to figure out. The Human Rights Campaign’s Sarah Warbelow similarly warned that “Donald Trump just let the fox into the hen house” by instructing Sessions to implement the order.

And LGBTQ groups probably have good reason to be worried. Despite all the hand-wringing by conservatives, at least one dependable opponent of LGBTQ rights didn’t seem concerned about the executive order at all. Thursday morning, hours before the order was signed, Fox News’ Todd Starnes assured his ilk there is more to come.

“Do not be alarmed! I spoke to a conservative leader late last night instrumental in crafting the order,” Starnes said. “He tells me this is just the first step in a multi-step process, and he tells me President Trump will protect religious freedom for all Americans. Now this president has demonstrated he is a friend to people of faith, and at the end of the day, I have no doubt he will honor his word. Just have faith.”