Statement on Draft Executive Order: “Establishing a Government-Wide Initiative to Respect Religious Freedom”
Last week, a draft executive order entitled “Establishing a Government-Wide Initiative to Respect Religious Freedom” was leaked to the press. Acknowledging that the order is a draft, and not knowing what a final version might bring, the fact that these ideas are being floated around the White House should trouble all Christians to their very cores. The draft reflects a significant shift in position from the religious accommodation rules under the Bush and Obama administrations, to one of religious superiority. If issued, it would create new barriers for those seeking government services—those who are often the neediest, poorest, and most vulnerable among us. These are the individuals that Jesus never turned away, regardless of their religious beliefs.
The draft order elevates four religious beliefs over all other religious beliefs: marriage is between one man and one woman, sexual relations are properly reserved for a marriage between one man and one woman, biological sex is an immutable objective characteristic that is determined before or at birth based on anatomy, physiology, or genetics, and life begins at conception. Of course, an Establishment Clause problem exists when the government privileges particular beliefs over others, but the effects on those who are served by persons who hold such privileged beliefs may be truly breathtaking.
The proposed executive order purports to permit a federal employee, a federal contractor, or an employee of a religious organization receiving a federal grant to refuse to serve any individual if doing so would violate the employee’s religious beliefs. Although some protections against this kind of discrimination exist in state and local law and would not be affected by the draft executive order, the draft order sends a clear message that the rights of those who serve the public should be elevated over the rights of those who are served.
For example, while many federal block grants have statutory protections against certain types of discrimination, and thus would not be affected by this draft executive order, many social welfare funding programs do not have that protection. An employee of a homeless shelter that receives discretionary funding from the federal government could claim that serving a young homeless unmarried mother violates their privileged religious beliefs, and they can therefore turn away a prospective beneficiary of the government’s funding. In essence, ideas being discussed at the White House include using government funds to perpetuate discrimination against those considered sinners by some who support the President.
An equally troubling aspect of this proposed executive order is that it includes in its expansive definition of “religious organization” for-profit organizations that are not operating exclusively for a religious purpose. Setting aside the vagueness of a “not exclusively religious purpose,” this definition of religious organization may expand the type of organizations that have the power to choose employees based on their faith, and are exempt from certain federal regulations. Moreover, it is possible that the order would allow these for-profit “religious organizations” to secure federal grants, while allowing them to select the beneficiaries of the federal government’s funding based on the religious beliefs of the corporations’ owners or employees.
The draft order also takes aim at foster children and related family services, directing that federally-funded religious organizations that provide such services can discriminate on the basis of the organization’s religious beliefs. This is not a new problem, but introduced in this order is the notion that these religious organizations now bear no responsibility even to refer to other organizations individuals whom they deny services. A gay foster child, with no resources of her own, who believes that she is loved and accepted by Jesus Christ just as she is, will be faced with the damaging reality that her government is funding coercion by the religious organization to accept the religious beliefs of others, or to be denied the services she needs.
These are the ideas that are being discussed at the White House. The disregard for the federal government’s moral obligation to serve all people, regardless of their religious beliefs, is shocking. These ideas, if implemented, would require possibly hundreds of new regulations that must be drafted and reviewed by many federal agencies. In the meantime, the potential for confusion and delay looms large, and the potential for denial of services to those who need them is disastrous. While we wait for a final “religious freedom” order, Christians should urge legislators and the executive administration to ensure that the President fully vets and studies the potential effects of a policy that does serious harm to the most vulnerable among us, who do not subscribe to the privileged beliefs set forth in this draft executive order.
The United Church of Christ Collegium of Officers
The Rev. John C. Dorhauer, General Minister and President
The Rev. Traci D. Blackmon, Acting Executive Minister, Justice and Witness Ministries
The Rev. James A. Moos, Executive Minister, Wider Church Ministries
The United Church of Christ Council of Conference Ministers
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