What Donald Trump's Religious Liberty Executive Order Does – and Doesn’t Do – and Why You Should Still Be Worried

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May 5, 2017
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Yesterday, in the Rose Garden, Donald Trump patted himself on the back for signing an Executive Order purporting to be about “Promoting Free Speech and Religious Liberty.”

He went on about all of the people allegedly persecuted for their religious beliefs during the prior eight years, and gave a shout out to the lawyers who sued the Obama administration at every turn.

And then, President Trump proceeded to explain how he was going to direct the IRS to ignore – I mean, “exercise maximum discretion” – with respect to policing federal tax laws restricting political activity by churches claiming tax-exempt status.

He also boasted that the Department of Health and Human Services would provide “regulatory relief” to employers who had a religious objection to their employees using an employer-sponsored health plan to purchase birth control.

Finally, he assured the most fundamentalist elements of his base that he would be directing the Department of Justice to “develop new rules” to afford maximum protection to people who feel as though their religion is burdened by federal law.

For those who were watching and waiting to see whether Trump would renege on his promise to “be respectful and supportive of LGBTQ rights,” it was a decidedly mixed outcome.

The executive order did not explicitly elevate various anti-LGBTQ views as exempt from anti-discrimination protections, and it is clear that the administration backed away from the draft order leaked in February because of the threat of lawsuits from Lambda Legal and others.

That is certainly a victory, as our opponents understand very well – “Trump Fails To Deliver on Religious Liberty,” according to the National Organization for Marriage.

But let’s be clear: through yesterday’s Executive Order, Donald Trump just issued a clarion call to his anti-LGBTQ minions, led by Jeff Sessions, to use every lever at their disposal to dismantle the progress that we’ve made over the last eight years.

By “directing the Department of Justice” to develop new guidance “interpreting religious liberty protections in federal law,” Donald Trump is turning Jeff Sessions loose and inviting every anti-LGBTQ conservative to cry foul about legal constraints on their behavior.

When Donald Trump talks about all of the lawsuits brought by those who have been “persecuted” under the Obama Administration, he’s talking about lawsuits brought by our well-funded opponents to bring down the transgender student guidance from the Department of Education, and the protections against LGBT discrimination in Section 1557 of the ACA, as well as their efforts to block workers’ access to reproductive health care.

The enemies of LGBT equality are now the foxes guarding the hen house. This Executive Order emboldens them to keep doing – and do more of – what they’ve already been doing under the radar screen, for the most part. For example, this past week, Jeff Sessions’ Justice Department – in consultation, no doubt, with Roger Severino and Tom Price at the Department of Health and Human Services – rolled over in a lawsuit challenging the Affordable Care Act’s prohibition on blanket exclusions of transition-related health care services.

Rather than doing his job and defending this law, Jeff Sessions said the DOJ was just fine with the district court continuing to keep these protections on hold so that HHS could “assess the reasonableness, necessity and efficacy” of these non-discrimination protections.

This was not the first time that we’ve seen the federal government do a 180 degree turn on us.

In fact, on only his second day on the job, Jeff Sessions pulled the plug on DOJ’s defense of the Department of Education’s transgender student guidance, and then, just a few days later, rescinded the guidance altogether.

The “Promoting Free Speech and Religious Liberty” Executive Order is nothing to celebrate if you are LGBTQ or care about the LGBTQ community. Yes, explicit anti-LGBTQ words were excised from the text of the EO itself. But it continues to legitimize the lie that the persecutors are somehow the persecuted – that laws and policies prohibiting discrimination are the real discrimination – and it gives our opponents new tools with which to translate that fiction into reality.

Trump has already been attacking us with 1,000 cuts.

And with yesterday’s Executive Order, he just handed out razors to every anti-LGBTQ zealot that he has put in place in his administration.