The Administration

5 steps President Trump can take to advance religious freedom

Donald Trump
Donald Trump

During his campaign, candidate Donald Trump spoke out against the disturbing growth of government hostility to religion. Now President-elect Trump has assembled a transition team who can prepare a new administration with the potential to curb much of that hostility.

{mosads}But on Jan. 20, when President Trump concludes the oath of office with the words initiated by George Washington — “So help me, God” — and takes his hand off the Bible, what specific actions can he take to give Americans a new birth of religious freedom? 


I believe there are five ways Trump can restore and protect the religious liberty that is the Constitutionally-guaranteed right of all Americans. 

First, he can nominate federal judges who will uphold the Constitution. This starts with the U.S. Supreme Court. He can immediately nominate a justice to replace Antonin Scalia with someone equally sensitive to the sanctity and value of religious freedom. But that will still leave the Court uncomfortably divided on religious liberty protections.

With three Justices over 78 years of age, one or more vacancies are expected. Should vacancies occur, it is essential that the Court add justices who will be guardians, not threats, to the rights of all people of faith.          

But this isn’t only about the Supreme Court; it also applies to the 13 federal circuit courts of appeals, with a total of 179 judges, and the 94 federal district courts with hundreds more judges. President Obama’s appointees have tilted these courts decisively in a religious freedom-hostile direction.

In 2009, only three of 13 circuits had a liberal majority; now nine of them do. As vacancies occur, the president can appoint justices who can secure for people of faith the freedom guaranteed by the Constitution.         

Second, the new president can exercise executive action. The most immediate way to do this is revoking President Obama’s executive orders that burden people of faith, such as orders forcing federal contractors to violate their religious beliefs or lose contracts.

Then, he can propose or support legislation such as repealing the infamous Johnson Amendment threatening churches with IRS sanctions; insisting on passage of the First Amendment Defense Act (FADA) protecting freedom for Americans to dissent over matters such as marriage and sexuality without fear of punishment; and repealing ObamaCare’s contraception and abortion mandates, which could literally bankrupt faith-based organizations like the Little Sisters of the Poor. Such actions would be doable and popular.

Third, President Trump can instruct the Department of Justice to advance religious freedom protection in court cases. They can file amicus briefs on the side of victims of religious discrimination.

Currently, the fourth federal circuit has a case deciding whether prayers before government meetings should be banned. Federal district courts are considering the dismissals of the Atlanta Fire Chief as well as a Georgia health official because of their private religious expression. The U.S. Supreme Court will consider whether to hear the case of a U.S. Marine court-martialed for refusing to remove an inspirational scripture verse from her workstation. Briefs from the administration could help such victims get justice and set precedents to protect other Americans.         

Fourth, Trump’s personnel decisions could also play a major role in safeguarding religious freedom. Our federal government desperately needs agency leaders who will develop and strengthen pro-religious freedom policies.

What a tremendous win for religious freedom it would be to have tolerant leaders in the U.S. Civil Rights Commission, the Civil Rights Division of the Department of Justice, the Equal Opportunity Employment Commission, to say nothing of the departments of Labor and Education. And, of course, there is the military.

Politically correct bureaucrats in federal agencies have been treating religious freedom as an afterthought at best, and trampling it underfoot at worst. This culture of intolerance has to stop, and that means a change in personnel. This is something that President Trump as Commander-in-Chief could solve quickly.          

Finally, Trump should use the bully pulpit of the presidency to speak out for religious freedom for all Americans. President Obama has paid lip service to “freedom of worship” while downplaying the Constitution’s words, “free exercise of religion” — and often equating faith with discrimination. In contrast, President Trump can use the White House to educate Americans on their right to live out their faith in peace with all other citizens.      

Our first president, George Washington, declared that “religion and morality are indispensable supports” of national greatness. Our 45th president can do the same and revive that vital affirmation of our first freedom — religious liberty.                                                   

Kelly Shackelford is President and CEO of First Liberty Institute, the nation’s largest legal organization solely dedicated to defending religious freedom for all Americans.

The views expressed by contributors are their own and not the views of The Hill.

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