Four high-ranking U.S. Catholic bishops expressed support on Feb. 16 for a controversial draft of an executive order that supporters say would protect religious liberty rights. But critics contend it would usher in discrimination against L.G.B.T. Americans and roll back health care gains for women.
“The right of all human beings to religious freedom, based on the inherent dignity of every person, has long been supported by the Catholic Bishops of the United States,” reads a statement released on Feb. 16 from the chairmen of four U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops committees. “Over the last several years, to our great dismay, the federal government has eroded this fundamental right, our first and most cherished freedom.”
During his campaign, President Donald J. Trump courted Catholic voters by promising greater religious liberty protections. Earlier this month, several media outlets reported on a draft of an executive order said to be under consideration by the White House.
The president has not signaled how, when or if he will move on such policies.
According to reports, the draft includes language providing an exemption from the Affordable Care Act’s contraception mandate for employers, such as the Little Sisters of the Poor, who argue that providing such coverage, or even notifying the government that they wish to be exempt from providing that coverage, violates their religious liberty.
Writing that “religious freedom is under severe threat,” the bishops said that an “immediate remedy to these threats is needed, for without it, our freedom to serve—as exemplified by the Little Sisters and others who serve the poor—will remain in jeopardy, and needless conflict between the faith community and the federal government will continue.”
Writing that ‘religious freedom is under severe threat,’ the bishops said that an ‘immediate remedy to these threats is needed.’
Critics of the draft order say that the language could be devastating to L.G.B.T. people.
Speaking to the Wall Street Journal, David Stacy, director of government affairs for the Human Rights Campaign, said that if the order were signed it would lead to “an unprecedented rollback of L.G.B.T. equality and rights.”
“This would provide a blanket exemption for religious organizations not to have to follow any statute that they say violates their religious beliefs,” he continued.
The draft contains language designed to end a 2014 rule requiring organizations doing business with the federal government not to discriminate against L.G.B.T. people in hiring, which was condemned at the time by some Catholic groups.
But on Jan. 30, the White House announced that the rule would remain in place, saying in a statement, “President Trump continues to be respectful and supportive of L.G.B.T.Q. rights, just as he was throughout the election.” That development prompted calls from some religious liberty advocates for Mr. Trump to move quickly on other religious liberty issues.
Richard Garnett, a law professor at the University of Notre Dame, told the Catholic News Service earlier this week that he believes the draft order would not legalize discrimination, noting that it is currently not against the law for religious institutions to take religion into account when hiring, for example. He argues instead that a Trump executive order on religious liberty could clarify the confusion that has trailed Obama administration rules by signaling White House support for the Religious Freedom Restoration Act.
The U.S.C.C.B. said in its Feb. 16 press release that the bishops are “urging support for the draft executive order,” though the statement does not detail which provisions of the draft order the bishops support.
“It is indeed encouraging to hear that the President may be considering an Executive Order to implement strong protections for religious freedom across the federal government, in many of the areas where it has been eroded by the preceding Administration, such as health coverage, adoption, accreditation, tax exemption, and government grants and contracts,” the bishops said.
The four bishops signing the statement, which has a markedly more conciliatory tone toward Mr. Trump than other statements in previous weeks that condemned the administration’s refugee ban, are Cardinal Timothy M. Dolan, Archbishop Charles J. Chaput, Archbishop William E. Lori and Bishop Frank DeWane.
“We ourselves, as well as those we shepherd and serve, would be most grateful if the President would take this positive step toward allowing all Americans to be able to practice their faith without severe penalties from the federal government,” the statement reads.
“President Trump can ensure that we are not forced from the public square,” it continues. “Restoring the federal government’s proper relationship with the First Amendment and other laws protecting conscience and religious freedom will enable us to continue our service to the most vulnerable of Americans.”