In a Thursday morning Rose Garden ceremony marking the National Day of Prayer, President Trump signed an executive order creating a new “faith initiative” that will be tasked with working on “religious liberty” issues across federal agencies.
“As president, I will always protect religious liberty,” Trump said in his remarks.
The order—first reported Wednesday night by Religion News Service—will “help ensure that faith-based organizations have equal access to government funding and equal right to exercise their deeply held beliefs,” Trump said.
But if those last three words—“deeply held beliefs”—sound familiar, it’s because they are often used to justify anti-LGBT legislation in the name of “religious freedom.” Indeed, LGBT advocates say that the executive order is yet another federal action that could potentially encourage discrimination against LGBT people in the name of religion.
“We’re very concerned because this administration has a pattern of inviting discrimination in the name of religion,” Camilla Taylor, director of Constitutional Litigation for the LGBT legal advocacy group Lambda Legal, told The Daily Beast shortly before the Rose Garden event.
Based on its reported description, Taylor said that the new “faith initiative” seems to be “actively seeking out opportunities to facilitate discrimination.” (As details of the order were officially announced minutes later, Lambda Legal tweeted, “Yikes, y’all.”)
Freedom of religion is absolutely a core value of our nation. What we're concerned about is the weaponization of that right. Weaponization that allows for and encourages discrimination and harm. Religious freedom is NOT freedom to discriminate. #LGBTQ
— Lambda Legal (@LambdaLegal) May 3, 2018
Rachel Laser, president of the watchdog group Americans United for Separation of Church and State, said in a press release that the order was “one more attempt by Trump, cheered by his Evangelical Advisory Board, to redefine religious freedom to mean the freedom to discriminate against those who do not share your religious beliefs.”
The White House did not immediately respond to a request for comment about LGBT groups’ concerns with the new “faith initiative.”
The text of the order, released shortly after the Rose Garden ceremony, notes that the initiative will be led by an as-yet-to-be-appointed adviser housed within the White House’s Office of Public Liaison.
The initiative—officially called “White House Faith and Opportunity Initiative”—will “consult with” religious leaders who can provide “expertise” on issues including “poverty alleviation,” “religious liberty,” and “strengthening marriage and family”—and then make “recommendations to the President.”
The initiative will also be required to inform the attorney general’s office “of concerns raised by faith-based and community organizations” about perceived violations of “religious liberty” protections.
It will also require any executive agencies that do not currently have a faith-based initiative to establish a “point of contact” who can “coordinate with the [initiative’s] Advisor in carrying out this order.”
Much of the initiative’s work, then, would seem to depend on who the initiative’s adviser will be, and what kind of organizations are consulted for recommendations. (The text of the order promises to identify potential leaders to consult “based on their expertise” but LGBT advocates have long observed the Trump administration’s particular coziness with anti-LGBT evangelical leaders, some of whom were in attendance at the signing.)
“Freedom of religion is a core American value, and starting a White House Faith and Opportunity Initiative would not be alarming, except for the anti-LGBTQ extremists and organizations who have the president’s loyalty and his ear,” said Zeke Stokes, vice president of Programs at the LGBT advocacy group GLAAD, in a statement. “GLAAD will be monitoring closely to see who is tapped to lead this initiative, and you can bet we will hold that person accountable and this initiative accountable just as we have this entire Administration since its beginning.”
The American Civil Liberties Union will also be “watching this initiative closely,” said Daniel Mach, director of the ACLU’s program on Freedom of Religion and Belief.
“Freedom of religion is one of our most fundamental and cherished rights,” Mach said. “But that freedom does not give any of us the right to harm other people, to impose our beliefs on others, or to discriminate.”
Thursday’s executive order comes just shy of one year after President Trump signed an “Executive Order on Promoting Free Speech and Religious Liberty” at the 2017 National Day of Prayer Ceremony—an order that anti-LGBT advocates feared in advance would amount to a sweeping “license to discriminate.”
As The Daily Beast’s Jay Michaelson reported, the final version of that executive order primarily worked to boost the political power of religious nonprofit organizations by ordering an end to enforcement of the Johnson Amendment, which bars 501(c)(3) organizations from campaigning for political candidates. (Subsequent efforts to formally repeal the Johnson Amendment, however, failed, as NPR reported in March.)
This January, the Trump administration took more substantive anti-LGBT action in the name of “religious freedom” when the Department of Health and Human Services announced a new “Conscience and Religious Freedom Division” to be housed within the agency’s Office for Civil Rights. That division was tasked with handling “religious freedom complaints” from health care providers, as The Daily Beast previously reported.
Although it did not create major new policy—as HHS noted in a press release, “OCR already has enforcement authority over federal conscience protection statutes”—LGBT advocates were still troubled by the shift in priorities signaled by the new division.
At the time, Lambda Legal CEO Rachel B. Tiven deemed the division “Orwellian” and Human Rights Campaign legal director Sarah Warbelow called it “unnecessary,” saying that it effectively “encourages discrimination against LGBTQ people.”
Much like the HHS Conscience and Religious Freedom Division, the new White House Faith and Opportunity Initiative does not amount to major new policy—although Trump promised in his remarks Thursday morning that it will “help design new policies that recognize the vital role of faith in our families, our communities, and our great country.”
And as Religion News Service noted, previous administrations—including the Obama and George W. Bush administrations—have established faith-based offices within federal agencies. The key difference with this new faith initiative, RNS reported, is the fact that it will coordinate across all executive agencies, even those that do not currently have faith-based initiatives.
Although the White House Faith and Opportunity Initiative is not the sweeping “religious freedom” executive order LGBT advocates were fearing at this time last year, LGBT advocates still see it as another possible step toward enabling discrimination.
“There are all sorts of threats that we’re facing that are trying to facilitate discrimination justified by religion,” Taylor told The Daily Beast. “And this is just the latest.”