From a florist in Washington state to preachers in the Bahamas, Christians are expressing concerns about how U.S. government policies are trampling on their rights of conscience.
Last month nearly 300 minister and church leaders from Caribbean nations sent a letter to President Trump expressing concern about the State Department’s efforts to “coerce our countries into accepting a mistaken version of marriage.” And yesterday the Washington State Supreme Court ruled against a Christian florist who refused to serve a same-sex wedding because of “her relationship with Jesus Christ.” In their unanimous decision the state court claims that “discrimination based on same-sex marriage constitutes discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation.”
After years of pleading with the Obama administration to recognize and respect religious freedoms when they conflict with the LGBT agenda, many Christians are wondering whether President Trump will finally champion the cause of conscience.
So far the administration is sending mixed signals.
Keeping Envoys and Appeals
In 2014 President Obama issued an executive order to extend protection against discrimination in hiring and employment by federal contractors on the basis of both sexual orientation and gender identity. At the time several Christian leaders sent a letter to Obama asking that a religious exemption be included, but were rebuffed.
Even before Trump took office a group of religious conservatives who supported him circulated a draft executive order to revoke Obama’s mandate. But as The New York Times reported, “Mr. Trump never seriously considered signing the order, and did not need much convincing, people close to him said.” The Times noted that the “two most influential social liberals in President Trump’s inner circle—daughter Ivanka and son-in-law Jared Kushner—helped kill a proposed executive order.”
The Trump administration even sent Vice President Pence, a social conservative, to defend the decision to the public. Pence told ABC News that Trump had made it clear during his campaign that “discrimination would have no place in our administration.” The implication was that rejecting the notion that gender identity was fluid was “discriminatory.”
“He was the very first Republican nominee to mention the LGBTQ community at our Republican National Convention and was applauded for it,” Pence said. “And I was there applauding with him.”
Earlier this week the administration announced Randy Berry, Obama’s special envoy for the rights of lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex (LGBTI) persons, Randy Berry, would be staying on in his role at the State Department. As Susan Yoshihara notes, “Berry stirred controversy for his part in inserting the homosexual rights agenda into the U.S. office dealing with religious freedom abroad.” This is the agenda that concerns Caribbean pastors, who are not willing to discard Scripture to embrace same-sex marriage and a redefinition of gender identity.
The Trump administration also had the opportunity to withdraw from a case that pits transgender rights against religious liberty. In the case, EEOC v. R.G. & G.R. Harris Funeral Homes, a male funeral home employee identified as a woman and was fired for dressing as a woman. Obama’s Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) sued the funeral home on behalf of the employee. A lower court judge ruled that the employer had a religious right to terminate the employment, but the EEOC appealed the decision.
When Trump took over, he could have told the EEOC withdraw from the case, thereby securing the religious freedom of the funeral home owner—but chose not to do so. Instead, Trump’s EEOC filed the appeal so the case could move forward.
Signs of Hope
A more positive development occurred recently when the Department of Justice, under new attorney general Jeff Sessions, announced it will no longer defend guidance issued under Obama regarding transgender students’ access to bathrooms and other single-sex areas in public schools. Last year the Justice Department issued a directive telling every public school district in the country to allow transgender students to use the bathrooms and locker rooms that match their “gender identity.” While it didn't have the force of law, as the The New York Times noted the letter contained an implicit threat: Schools that do not abide by the Obama administration’s interpretation of the law could face lawsuits or a loss of federal aid.
But as Ryan T. Anderson, a senior research fellow at the Heritage Foundation, told National Review, the Trump administration ought to take another step and acknowledge that the Obama letter from May was unlawful, because it misinterpreted Title IX’s prohibition of discrimination on the basis of sex. Anderson points out that “sex” in the context of Title IX refers to “a biological, anatomical reality, not gender identity.”
President Trump could still take action to qualm the concerns of religious believers. Earlier this month a draft of an executive order protecting religious freedom was leaked to the media and LGBT groups. While no action has yet been taken, it’s rumored to still be under consideration.
Trump has also promised to sign the First Amendment Defense Act, which prohibits the federal government from taking discriminatory action against a person on the basis that “such person believes or acts in accordance with a religious belief or moral conviction that: (1) marriage is or should be recognized as the union of one man and one woman, or (2) sexual relations are properly reserved to such a marriage.”
Whether Trump becomes an adequate defender of religious freedom will likely depend on whether the listens to advisers like Mike Pence and Jeff Sesssion or to those like Ivanka Trump and Jared Kushner. As Mat Staver, chairman of Liberty Counsel, told World magazine, “I’m still optimistic, but all the way through the election, this was the one issue that was his weak point from a Christian conservative perspective. I think he needs more information and more advisers to give him the lay of the land on this issue.”