One year ago, President Donald Trump issued an executive order promoting free speech and religious freedom across the federal government. According to a study released on Thursday, also the National Day of Prayer, this order played a critical role in allowing faith-based charities to provide health care to 13.7 million Americans, along with many other salutary effects.
“Thanks to President Trump, over the last year we have witnessed nothing less than a revival of legal protections for religious freedom in America,” Family Research Council (FRC) President Tony Perkins said in a statement releasing the report. “In tracking the impact of the executive order, our analysis finds that the president has helped hundreds of charities and schools that provide services for up to 14 million Americans.”
This represents a sea change from the tenure of President Barack Obama. “Under the Obama administration, charities, family owned businesses and honest, hard-working people faced crushing fines for living according to their faith,” Perkins added. “With the government threatening their very existence, these organizations successfully rallied the American people to their side — including many of the nearly 14 million Americans that they serve.”
“In fact, the federal agency used by Obama to launch this attack has turned 180 degrees creating a Conscience and Religious Freedom Division under the Office for Civil Rights to restore federal enforcement of our nation’s laws that protect the fundamental and unalienable rights of conscience and religious freedom,” Perkins declared.
The report itself went through four administrative agencies — the Department of Agriculture (USDA), the Department of Justice (DOJ), the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS), and the Department of Defense (DOD) — analyzing the executive order’s impact on governance.
Under Obama, the USDA had targeted David Vander Boon, a small business owner who runs a meat-packing facility. Vander Boon had left literature expressing pro-natural marriage views in his breakroom, and USDA officials threatened to remove USDA inspectors over the issue. Under Trump’s executive order, the USDA issued policy statements clarifying that Vander Boon would not be targeted for his free speech.
After Trump’s executive order, the DOJ has argued in favor of Jack Phillips, a baker who gladly served a same-sex couple but refused to bake a custom cake specifically for their same-sex wedding. As the FRC report noted, this sends a “message to the courts that … the executive branch is prioritizing the First Amendment and religious liberty.”
The most quantifiable change from Trump’s executive order came in the HHS, however. As the report noted, “a multitude of religious organizations, charities, schools, and other groups and individuals have been tied up in years of litigation against the Obama administration’s HHS contraceptive mandate that was issued following the passage of the Affordable Care Act,” also known as Obamacare.
“Despite the serious conscience concerns of these individuals and entities, the Obama administration refused to allow them to opt out of being forced to provide contraceptives and abortion-causing drugs and services against their beliefs,” the report explained. After Trump’s order, the HHS created a “meaningful exception” to the mandate, which has been challenged in court.
At a minimum, the exemption covers the 354 organizations that have challenged the mandate in court. Among these are 44 schools providing an education for more than 148,000 students.
Even more crucial are the public service organizations, which provide health care and other social services to approximately 13.7 million people, according to FRC’s calculations.
Catholic Charities USA, the umbrella organization for many local Catholic Charities that challenged the HHS mandate, served more than 8.7 million Americans in 2014 alone. Nationwide, Catholic health care providers serve one of every six hospital patients in the U.S. In a one-year period, they collectively admitted over 5 million patients and employed over 600,000 people.
These 5 million and the 8.7 million served by Catholic Charities add up to 13.7 million, whose care was jeopardized by the contraceptive mandate and protected by the religious freedom order.
While not all local religious providers and chapters joined the lawsuits against the mandate, their religious freedom was in jeopardy nonetheless. Moreover, these numbers were drawn from only a few specific groups, so they represent a conservative estimate of those helped by the care provided by such charities.
The religious freedom order also helped the Little Sisters of the Poor, an international network serving more than 13,000 elderly poor in 31 countries around the world. There are 30 homes in the U.S. where the Sisters care for the elderly and dying with love and dignity.
The order also helped Samaritan Ministries, a health care cost-sharing group with 229,000 members who share more than $25 million in health care monthly. The contraception mandate also threatened their health care.
The 13.7 million number does not include the Little Sisters, Samaritan Ministries, or the many ministries across America that provide health care for their employees, which may have had to go out of business to defend their religious beliefs under the contraception mandate. Many of these groups said they “would pay the millions of dollars in fines (and ultimately go bankrupt) that the Obama administration’s approach to the HHS mandate would demand, rather than violate their consciences.”
Lastly, the report mentioned the Department of Defense, and the case of Air Force Colonel Leland Bohannon, who was disciplined last year after refusing to sign a certificate of appreciation for the same-sex spouse of an airman under his command. Bohannon did not leave the man in the lurch, but had a higher-ranking officer sign the certificate.
Air Force administrative authorities found Bohannon in violation of regulations prohibiting discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation, but the Air Force Review Boards Agency reversed this finding on the grounds of his freedom of conscience regarding same-sex marriage. In this ruling, the agency cited Trump’s order.
While the FRC report heartily praised Trump’s order, it also insisted that there is still important work to be done. “Many policies of the Obama administration demanding affirmation of categories such as sexual orientation and gender identity remain in place, and hang as a cloud over religious freedom insofar as they could be used to force people to violate their sincerely held religious beliefs on these matters,” the report warned.
“These policies and regulations should be repealed or amended with clarifications that protect religious freedom,” FRC’s Travis Webber insisted.
LGBT activists often balk at the idea of religious freedom protections, claiming that they represent a “license to discriminate.” Each of the cases above demonstrates that this is not the case: Jack Phillips gladly serves cakes to LGBT people, he just refused to bake a custom cake for a same-sex wedding; Col. Bohannon ensured that the same-sex spouse received his signed certificate, even though he could not sign it himself.
Over and over again, LGBT activists have shown that their goal is not to prevent blanket discrimination — which is illegal and not at issue here — but the ability of religious people to opt out of celebrating their identities and lifestyles.
Furthermore, this report illustrates the concrete benefits of protecting religious freedom. Conversely, when the Left circumvents religious freedom protections, the vulnerable suffer. This emphatically includes children. In 2006, Catholic Charities of Boston had to shut its doors in Massachusetts and San Francisco due to “anti-discrimination” laws. The agency had to leave Washington, D.C., four years later. Activists insisted adoption agencies had to place children with same-sex couples, but the charities ended up unable to place any children at all.
The Trump order is allowing people to live and let live. The religious freedom order does not enable discrimination, but it does allow religious organizations to carry out their important work without the specter of government forcing them to violate their consciences. More than 13.7 million people are better off for it.